As promised, here’s a sample of my new novella Reckless. As I stated in the previous blog post, this should be out next week. There’s just a few more rounds of edits to go. I’ll be sending out an email to everyone on my mailing list when it goes live on Amazon.
Here’s the current product description:
His hand slides up my leg. I don’t push it away. There’s no wire on me. No one is watching me except for Diego, and he’s not the man they think he is…
The undercover assignment was supposed to be simple: date the infamous-billionaire criminal Diego Martinez, discover his inner circle, and get him talking. Love was the last thing on my mind. Now I’m walking a tightrope between agent and accomplice, and just to screw with my head even more, my old partner has been assigned to the case. I always wondered what could have been between Nick and me, but he always played by the rules. Not me, though. I make my own rules. And Diego’s about to make me break them all.
Okay, here is the first ten percent. Amazon won’t let me give anymore than that since it’s available for Kindle Unlimited. The ebook version won’t have the extra line between paragraphs and it will be nicely indented where appropriate. WordPress seems to automatically remove formatting. Hope you enjoy!
Drum . . .
Drum . . .
Drum . . .
Studying me with the intensity of all bosses who regard themselves as corner-office deities, Henry Bailey’s fingers tap across the oak table. Beyond him, past a thick pane of glass, pinewood trees trace the periphery of Langley.
“If it was up to me, I wouldn’t give you this assignment,” he says. “Others have recommended you, and it is their judgment to which I am deferring.”
His voice is stern and cold and prickish. His Yale diplomas flank both walls, and a distinguished alumnus clock with two golden pens rests on the center of his desk. Straightening his Windsor-knotted tie, he waits for my reaction.
I can’t imagine who would recommend me for such an assignment. Five years of domestic undercover work with the DEA followed by a couple of years in the CIA hardly qualifies me for an assignment of this magnitude.
“I don’t know how long you’ll be gone,” he says, ignoring my question. “Nor can I ensure your safety.”
A drawer opens. A manila folder is placed on the table; the front cover flips open.
“Very well, Ms. Hill. The target is Diego Martinez, international drug producer and distributer of cocaine. While we don’t know the exact numbers, our sources indicate he runs no less than the second or third largest operation in the world.”
A picture of the target slides in front of me.
My eyes go wide.
“Yes, yes,” Mr. Bailey groans. “I hear he’s very easy on the eyes.”
Mr. Bailey turns the picture face down. “But he’s also a ruthless psychopath. Last April he murdered his then six-month pregnant girlfriend.”
“Car bombing. Real nice, eh?”
Additional pictures are presented: cocaine fields, various mansions, mistresses, associates. Names and locations are rattled off. I repeat them in my mind, memorizing the words and the pictures they go with.
“And my role?”
He closes the folder and clasps his hands together. “You’re to date him.”
I stifle a laugh. “Date him?”
“You’re to gain his trust, get inside his compound, gather evidence against him. You’ll wear a wire, get him talking . . .” Mr. Bailey makes circular motions with his hand. “You’ll use your imagination to get the job done. Same as with all undercover work. We have a recon team already in place. Tomorrow, Diego will be in Cusco, Peru, for a gala put on to raise money for needy Peruvians in the rural Andes. It’s a PR stunt typical of drug lords. Pablo mastered it. Now everyone else follows along.”
I now understand Mr. Bailey’s reluctance. This isn’t a typical sting operation or a low-level drug bust. I’ve spent my career nabbing idiots with muscles and attitudes. Diego may be many things, but idiot is not one of them. No one gets to his level in the drug trade without being shrewd and cunning.
“How do you know he’ll date me?”
Gesturing at me, he says, “He likes American blondes. Natural blondes. Don’t ask me how, but supposedly he can tell the difference, and he has quite the pet peeve for dyed hair. Our plan is to have you act as a cocktail waitress. You’ll serve Diego, flirt with him, and see where it goes. We have someone on the team who will give you a makeover, as well.” He quickly adds, “Not that I’m insinuating you need a makeover, Ms. Hill.”
Me? No, of course not. Let’s see. For the last two years, I’ve been freezing my ass off in Western Canada posing as a wholesale cannabis distributor. During my time with the DEA, I worked in Miami pretending to be a speed-addicted dealer making contacts with alligator-wrestling meth manufacturers. Before that, I was a backwoods hillbilly locating Kentucky’s largest cannabis growers. Oh, and I can’t forget my humble beginnings with the NYPD as a street prostitute. The only time I’ve worn a dress in the field was that time I bumbled my way through pretending to be a socialite taking up the heroin trade. A couple of bullets were fired at me and I almost died, but otherwise things went just peachy.
My childhood was no better. Sure, I was a Georgia girl growing up in Athens, but there was no debutantes or junior cotillions for me. I shot grouses and snipes, skinned deer and turkey. When I was fourteen, I bagged Clarke County’s third largest bass of the summer. In high school, I wore muck boots and camo jackets the way prepsters in LA flaunt Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
Reel in Diego Martinez?
I have my doubts.
“And if he doesn’t respond?”
“With that confidence, how could he not?” Mr. Bailey chuckles. “Actually, he likes the meek and mild. Pretend you’re a lady in distress and he’ll bite. If not, we have other plans in place.”
“If you know where he’s going to be, why don’t you just send a drone strike to take him out? Wouldn’t that be a better use of the American tax dollar? Why all this complicated courting?”
Mr. Bailey lets out a sigh so deep it’s more of a groan. “Oh, wouldn’t I like to. Those were the days. All you needed before was a target and a location. And BAM! No more target.” His palm slams against the desk, rattling the pens. “But not anymore. I’ve got Congress up my ass, Amnesty International and a dozen other watch groups documenting our every move. Edward Snowden is yapping from Russia as if he’s Internet’s Gandhi, lawyers are filing suits on behalf of Gitmo detainees. The cowboy days are over. We need a suspect in court with hard evidence.”
I know I’m supposed to keep my back straight, my eyes on Mr. Bailey, and all that other jazz exhuming confidence, but I find myself slouching in the chair as I try to imagine myself winning the affection of a guy like Diego. I can barely get a second date from your average guy on OkCupid, let alone woo a man handsome enough to grace the cover of GQ.
“It’s a lot to ask,” Mr. Bailey says as if sensing my doubt. “If you don’t want to go, I perfectly understand. I won’t think any less of you. There’s plenty of other international work to be done, and I have an alternate agent who’s willing to go.”
“I was just worried about the language barrier. I haven’t spoken a lick of Spanish since high school.”
Mr. Bailey nods. “Fluency in Spanish was a requirement I had listed for the assignment. That’s one of the main reasons I was so surprised when your name came up. But I wouldn’t worry too much. The recon team is fluent in Spanish and Diego speaks English very well. Who knows? Maybe your lack of Spanish will help make you seem more authentic.”
Perhaps. I hear myself agreeing to the assignment, nevertheless. I need this one. I have to get away. When you’re running, locations don’t matter, and in this game, hazard is a given.
Another folder is presented.
“Inside there’s a passport, an airline ticket, and cash. You’ll be going by the alias Caroline Davis. Any other questions?”
“When do I leave?”
“Right now, Ms. Hill. Your luggage has already been packed.”
I stare out of the window.
There’s nothing to see. Cloud, cloud, cloud, speck of blue, cloud, cloud, cloud. They’re so thick I pretend the plane is soaring through cotton candy. I can’t understand the fear of flying. To me, there’s something inexplicably freeing about the act, however unnatural it may be. It’s the same as escaping deep into the woods where there’s nothing around you except the crackle of falling branches and the call of some hidden Aves chirping from afar.
I want to lose myself in the book resting on my lap, but every time I open the page, the words blur and my mind drifts elsewhere.
Meditating on the gentle hum of the jet engines and the rushing swoosh of the AC, I struggle to keep my eyes on the wisps of cotton balls sweeping past the window. I blink several times, and after each successive blink my eyes stay shut a little longer.
I remind myself to stay alert.
This isn’t an assignment to be careless with. SWAT isn’t going to show up if I foil a line. The cavalry will be far away and this Diego guy hasn’t gotten to where he is by being careless, either. Bailey failed to mention how many policía Diego’s killed.
I imagine it’s a lot.
My morbid thoughts have my mind wandering. I can’t think of death without reflecting on dad. “Prostate Cancer with bone metastasis and skeletal involvement,” the doctor said gravely. One-year survival rate: forty percent. Five-year survival rate: don’t ask. Where were the walks and wristbands for his disease? Where were the federal funds or the President and celebrities taking to the cameras with their grandstanding vows to end prostate cancer? Where were my dad’s unified-colored ribbons and balloons blanketing the country with vociferous awareness when he shrunk to bones and limbs and clumps of malignant cells?
Was his fight a second-class death?
Spite has me alert. My hands clench onto the ends of the armrest, blanching my knuckles. My eyes widen and fill with mist. I envision the nurses, the first to greet me at the ward like an officer halting parents from witnessing the gory scene of their child’s flipped-over vehicle, pandering their nonsense about new treatments and maintaining a “positive attitude”.
“We’re very hopeful,” they’d lie as if I didn’t have access to the Web’s brutal candor. “We still have time on our side.”
In the wonderful world of tumors, time moves in another dimension. It isn’t charted by days or months or years. Cancer stages, biopsy results, prostate-specific antigen levels, digital rectal exams, cystoscopy, CAT scans, and MRIs all coalesce to give you the only time that matters—life expectancy. Stage V? Better call the kids and tell them you love them. Those bad-boy cells are dividing faster than a red-eye out of LAX.
And when it’s all over, when those amorphous giants have spread through bone and blood and brain, and there’s nothing left but the steady dial tone of death’s carol singing on the heart monitor and the solemn we-did-everything-we-could expressions from the doctors—then the surviving family enters a new time zone, one filled with second guesses and what ifs and if onlys and should haves and should ofs and why didn’t I do or say this or say that, but alas, there’s no more time, only the crisp white sheet drawn over the deceased like the pancake clouds before me.
“Are you okay, miss?”
I turn toward the voice beside me. The man’s tawny skin suggests he’s heading home and from his ragged plaid shirt, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is his first trip on an airplane. His eyes are soft with concern.
A hand extends, offering me a tissue.
I put my fingers to my face and feel warm streams. I need to get my shit together. I snatch the tissue and turn back to the window without thanking him.
I stare at the clouds. I suddenly hate the man next to me. I know he’s only trying to help, but he should mind his own business. I’d like to see him try that stunt on a subway in Manhattan. Good way to get your lights punched out. As a carnal image forms in my head, I smile.
He utters something in his native tongue.
“I don’t speak Spanish, pal.” I’m shocked by my own catty attitude. “Sorry.” I extend a hand. “I’m Miranda.” My heart slams into my ribs. I’m not Miranda. How can I be so stupid? I’m Caroline Davis, I’m Caroline Davis, I’m Caroline Davis.
“Good to meet you Miranda,” he says, shaking my hand. “On vacation?”
I tell myself to settle down. This man is a nobody. Still, I must be careful.
“I needed to get away from things back home,” I say. “I lost a loved one.”
“Mother, father, grandparent?”
It takes me a moment to answer. “Father.”
He nods. “That’s the hardest for a girl to lose. At least he’s in a better place now.”
I force a smile. I hardly think Oconee Hill Cemetery is a better place.
The rattle of the flaps releasing from the wings interrupts us. The fasten-seat-belt pictorial glows and a ping sound emits through the aircraft that is eerily similar to a nurse’s call button. Turbulence shakes the aircraft. The man beside me lifts a silver crucifix from beneath his shirt and kisses it.
We break through the clouds and all I can see are the Andes. The rocky cordillera dominates the entire terrain; Salcantay is lost above the clouds. The valley quickly rises beneath us. We fly low, soaring between the towering outcrops. Cubes of corrugated sheet metal stipple the alluvial valley in a hodgepodge of derelict villages. The variegated shacks loiter the mountainside like crushed, discarded soda cans.
The lack of urban planning is astonishing. Like untamed weeds, the boundaries of the city have grown unchecked. There is an endless checkerboard of rusted rooftops and crude shanties. Dirt roads zigzag and climb precipitous inclines. Electrical wires dip and sag. The only green I detect is far from the clutches of civilization.
Metal whines as the landing gear releases. I buckle my seatbelt and turn my attention forward.
The ground rushes ahead.
Wheels meet the runway.
A vortex of wind deafens my ears.
Overhead lights flood the cabin.
The plane fills with the repetitive clicking of overhead bins and idle chatter. I grab my carryon and begin to leave. The man beside me has already slipped down the aisle, threading his way around passengers.
The airport’s dilapidated-status matches the neglected valley it sits within.
Inside the terminal, I watch a frayed and worn conveyer belt struggle to tow my bags. My grey, CIA-issued U.S. Traveler luggage has barely survived the voyage. Several black stripes scar the faces and a wheel is missing from my largest bag.
I lumber with the luggage, stopping every couple of feet to rebalance my one-wheel bag.
I get outside.
The balmy air is thin and the clouds hang cartoonishly low as if placed by an unskilled artist. If I were to climb the nearest hillside and jump, I’m certain I could grasp their puffy contents. The azure sky is so blue it doesn’t appear real. I find myself struggling to look away as the plane’s contrail drifts over the Andes and separates.
In many ways, I have arrived on a foreign planet, one with insufficient oxygen and a kind of fragmented modernism. There are no busy airport roads or taxi-designated parking areas other than a lot crippled by pots holes and wandering cracks. A row of yellow and white Daewoo Ticos sit idle by the curb where a throng of short and lean men rest against these anachronistic vehicles, eyeing potential patrons leaving the terminal.
The men descend upon me.
“Necesita un taxi?”
“Venga por aca.”
“Treinta soles al centro. Mejores precios.”
Hands reach for my bags. I forget my training. I’m eighteen again, pacing the house before leaving for the academy.
“I’m fine,” I say, clutching my bags close to me.
Do they understand English? I must remember something from Spanish class. But it’s been so many years.
“Très bien,” I say, holding up my hands.
Wait. Does très bien mean what I think it does?
A smiling Peruvian starts wheeling my bags to a car.
“No,” I protest, grabbing my luggage.
Puzzled, he releases his grip.
“Pensé que habías dicho muy bueno,” he says not so kindly.
I shake my head. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”
I guard my luggage and peer around. Where is the recon team? Bailey said to wait outside the airport. My flight was on time. Has the team been compromised? Does Diego know that we’re here?
I search for the sound of my alias’ caller. It has a familiar ring.
Then I see him.
I don’t believe it.
“Nick?” I hear myself whisper. He’s taller than I recall, but the sandy-brown hair flitting in the breeze and parted to one side is exactly as I remembered it, along with that innocent, boy-down-the-street smile welcoming me.
A forceful taxi driver takes hold of my largest bag. He hurries away, announcing something in Spanish.
“Hey!” I yell, pushing him away and reclaiming my bag. The one-wheel luggage piece topples over, but I continue lugging it toward Nick—toward safety.
“Tu madre es una puta!” the taxi driver shouts at me.
Nick rushes toward me.
The taxi driver scurries away.
“You can take the girl out of Georgia,” he says, smiling and shaking his head.
I stop in front of him, sweating. My bag wobbles and falls. The handle strikes the sidewalk.
The last time we saw each other, Nick was leaving New York to join the LAPD. How did he get involved with the CIA? How long has he been in South America? Just what is going on?
“What are you doing here, Nick?”
“Not here,” he whispers. “Follow me.”
He lifts the bags and carries them.
I walk beside him, watching his thick arms flexing under the load. There’s a tattoo on his upper arm that I don’t remember. It’s black and spirals and lends him a modicum of danger. Must be new. The ink rises past the sleeve of his featherweight mesh shirt. His arms are dark from the sun and a braided, leather bracelet rests on his left wrist. I can’t decide if the accoutrement makes him appear more like a local or a tourist.
We pass a long line of Tico Taxis and early model Beetles. The passenger door to a 1970s Dodge Dart pops open. Half of the grill is missing and a headlight is smashed in. The vehicle was once black but spreading rust is morphing it into an unintended shade.
“Apúrate!” the driver shouts.
“Get in,” Nick tells me.
I give him and the car a second look before I climb into the backseat. The leather interior burns my hands. I’m glad I wore jeans.
Nick hops in the front, slaps the dash and yells, “Vamos!”
The engine cries out like a tortured seagull on the brink of death. We leave the tiny airport and drive along on a two-lane road that is currently being used as four. A banner spans the road with the words: MUNICIPALIDAD DEL CUSCO. Banners flank the road with gay pride colors.
“I didn’t know Peruvians were so progressive,” I jest.
Nick turns in the front seat. He’s now wearing a pair of black Ray-Bans and my heart flutters a little faster. Dark stubble marks his chin and face—rugged like the Andes.
“That’s the Cusco Flag,” he says. “You should have studied up on the culture before coming.”
“I would have except for the fact that I just found out about the assignment this morning.”
We continue along the main thoroughfare with the windows down. I feel as though I’ve entered Saigon after the fall. Buildings are crumbled into forgotten piles of brick and scattered dust. Large canvas tarps span over several rooftops. Even modern buildings have their sides exposed unabashed, as if their architects were restricted to designing only their façades.
The mountains rise around this satellite of third-world industrialism. Billboards dot the hillside. From the ads, I get the impression Coca-Cola holds a majority ownership of the city. Higher still, plywood shanties cling to sheer mud. Grey clouds rush over the cordillera and into the valley, and I wonder how these homes will not soon be washed into the city by a terrific mudslide.
Our driver strikes me as a local not just for his Spanish ethnicity, but moreover, by the way he drives. With perilous deft, he whizzes our clunker between trundling buses and past sputtering motorcycles. I brace myself and pump a phantom brake with every pass as the rushing air tousles my hair.
“Where’s the rest of the team?” I shout over the wind.
“You’re looking at it,” Nick answers. “This is José. He’s our local expert.”
“Please to meet you,” José says, turning to shake my hand as he continues flying down the busy, overcrowded road.
“Would you please just keep your eyes on the road!” I scream.
He turns back in time to careen around a truck loaded with workers returning home for the day. The main road, Velasco Astete, empties into a roundabout. 240 degrees later, we turn onto Av. 28 de Julio. These names are meaningless to me, but I log them into my memory like I’ve been trained to do.
“How long have you two been here?” I ask, trying to take my mind off José’s driving.