“All right, comm check,” Jade said, her honey-sweet voice coming clear and strong through Charles’s earpiece. “Siren here. Everything looks good on my end. Valkyrie?”
“Online,” said Eva. She slipped her arm into the crook of Charles’s elbow as they strolled along a crowded sidewalk in downtown El Paso. A tall woman even while barefoot, Eva’s strappy heels put her at height with Charles, a couple inches over six feet. The drape of her silky black dress over lean, hard muscles drew more than a few admiring glances. “We’re approaching the restaurant now.”
“Copy that. Griffin?”
“Online,” Charles said. He scanned the hordes of Saturday night pleasure-seekers thronging both sides of the street, alert to any behavior out of the ordinary. Though only in his early thirties, he felt ancient next to the swarms of fresh-faced college kids who made up a big chunk of the population, compliments of the local branch of the University of Texas. Had he ever had that much energy?
With a crackling sigh, Sakura said, “I’m sitting literally three feet away from you.”
“Yeah, but I just love the way your forehead scrunches up when you’re annoyed,” Jade said. “This isn’t only for my benefit, you know.”
“Fury online. Wheels ready to go at extraction point.”
“Thanks, sweetie. Sandman?”
“Online,” Shane said. “I’m in position across the street. Someone want to remind me why I’m being relegated to lookout?”
“Because you’re a young white man,” said Charles, lowering his voice as he and Eva entered Bar Medianoche, joining the line for the hostess stand. “Nobody’s going to harass you for sitting alone in your car on a busy city street.”
“I don’t know—some of these ladies walking by are looking very interested.”
“I’m sure your wife would be thrilled to hear that.”
Charles and Eva reached the front of the line, where the beleaguered hostess gave them a tight smile and said, “How many?”
“We’d like to just sit at the bar, if that’s all right,” Charles said.
“Of course,” she said, her smile relaxing. “Go right ahead.”
“Remember, people, this is an extraction,” Eva said once they were clear of the hostess stand. “There will be no engagement or apprehension of any criminal suspects unless absolutely necessary. There will certainly be no shots fired. Is that understood, Sandman?”
“Ouch, Valkyrie, way to call a guy out,” Sakura said.
“You shoot a mannequin one time,” Shane grumbled.
Bar Medianoche was a large establishment, classy and upscale, packed to the rafters with a diverse clientele. An enormous three-sided bar dominated the center of the restaurant, with tables expanding outward in concentric arcs and booths lining the walls. Charles and Eva merged with the mob at the bar, where there wasn’t a single empty seat; the din of conversation was so loud that people had to shout their orders to the bartender.
“I’ve got the camera feeds up,” Jade said, accompanied by the sound of clicking keys. “Nice of the manager to let us piggyback, but if he thinks I couldn’t take control in three seconds flat—”
“No,” Eva said.
“I’m just pointing out that I could,” said Jade, all wounded innocence. “Oh, I see you guys—damn, Griffin, you are looking fine in that suit. Hey, how come there’s never been a black James Bond?”
Charles adjusted his tie, trying to catch the bartender’s attention. “Do you really want me to answer that?”
“Well, you’re way hotter than Daniel Craig. And that’s saying something.”
“Siren,” Eva snapped, over Shane and Sakura’s snickering.
“Sorry, Valkyrie. You look awesome too, as per usual. That dress is really working for—”
There came a loud thud, a yelp, and a sudden silence.
“Thanks, Fury,” said Eva.
“No problem,” Sakura said.
Eva lifted one hand and smiled in the direction of the bartender, who all but dropped the shaker he was holding to hurry toward them. She and Charles accepted their swiftly poured wine and stepped away from the bar.
“Now all we have to do is find one total stranger in a jam-packed restaurant,” Charles said, directing his remark to Eva, though the other three could still hear him.
“Yeah, but on the plus side, we know he’s a Latino man in his late twenties,” Jade said. “Who could be easier to find in El Paso?”
Charles sighed. Their target, a fellow ATF agent who’d spent two years undercover with the Esparza cartel, had requested extraction when the cartel leader’s sudden death destabilized the power structure. Straightforward enough—until the agent’s handler, Paul Warner, had gone missing the night before the scheduled meet up.
As per protocol, Warner was the only person who knew the undercover agent’s true identity; all of the agent’s electronic records had been purged. The single paper copy of his file had been safeguarded in a secure room in the agency’s Dallas office, tucked away in a lockbox to which Warner had sole access. When Warner’s disappearance was confirmed, Dallas Division had instituted emergency protocols to break into the lockbox, only to find it empty.
Warner had filed a bare-bones report on the extraction request, including place and time. But with everything else missing, that was all the agency had to go on. Concerns of internal corruption had prompted Dallas Division to call in Eva’s team from two divisions over to handle the extraction. For all they knew, the undercover agent was already dead.
“We’re looking for high-level lieutenants of the Esparza cartel,” said Eva. “Phoenix’s communication indicated that he wouldn’t be alone. It’s the only hope we have of identifying him.”
“Split up?” Charles suggested.
Eva nodded, and they went their separate ways. While Eva headed to the east side, Charles went south, making a slow circuit of the restaurant and sipping casually from his wineglass. He skimmed every table and booth he passed, but it was a losing proposition. The patrons were in a partying mood, milling back and forth between tables and many not sitting in their seats at all; the servers had a hard time getting through the crowded aisles. About half the men present were Latino and relatively young.
“Anything on those cameras, Siren?” Eva asked.
“I’m doing my best, but these are shitty restaurant security cams. The resolution is terrible, and it’s not like I can run face-recognition software on this system.”
Charles completed his perusal of the restaurant’s south section and headed up the west wall, narrowly avoiding a collision with a server bearing a trayful of cocktails.
“Worst-case scenario, we could evacuate the restaurant,” Sakura said. “Position someone at each exit, watch everyone who comes out.”
“And risk collateral damage in the panic that would cause?”
Charles considered the tables he wove between. If he were cartel, he wouldn’t sit in a wide-open space like this; he’d want something against the wall, with easy access to at least one of the exits. This restaurant was a logistical nightmare judged from any angle, and the only tables that offered real protection were the booths along the sides. Maybe by the kitchen, for the added possibility of escape through the back . . .
He turned his head, humming in thought, and met the eyes of a man he never thought he’d see again.
He stopped short right in the aisle, shock reverberating through his body. A woman bumped into him from behind, muttered something uncomplimentary, and skirted around him. Charles’s hand spasmed around his glass.
Ángel was too good to give himself away. His jaw tightened, but he otherwise showed no reaction as his eyes slid naturally past Charles’s and returned to his companions, two burly, bearded Latino men at least two decades his senior.
“I . . .” Charles cleared his throat and moved away, returning to the bar before he could call any unwanted attention to himself. “I found Phoenix. Booth in the far northwest corner.”
“On my way to you,” Eva said.
“I’ll grab a visual,” Jade said. “You’re sure it’s Phoenix?”
Setting his wine on the bar, Charles said, “I’m positive. I know him.”
“You know him?” Shane said.
“We worked together in Tucson,” Charles said, just as Eva rejoined him.
Her eyes widened; she was the only one on the squad who understood the full import of that statement. She glanced in Ángel’s direction, then back at Charles with raised eyebrows. He pressed his lips together.
“All right,” said Jade, “let’s see what I can do here . . . Oh. Oh, wow. Hot. Super hot. Turn up the A/C, Fury.”
Eva groaned in exasperation. “Siren, do you remember the conversation we had about not saying every single word that goes through your head?”
“Let me see that,” Sakura said to Jade. There was a short scuffle over comms, a squawk of protest from Jade, and then Sakura said, “Looks like Oscar Palomo to me—Esparza’s brother-in-law. What do you guys think?”
“Agreed,” Charles said. Palomo’s square jaw and cold eyes were easily recognizable from the dossiers Charles and his team had reviewed on the flight to El Paso.
“We’ve got more than enough for a positive ID, then,” Jade said. “That’s Phoenix.”
“He’s scared,” Eva said quietly.
Charles nodded. Ángel was an excellent actor—the best Charles had ever met—but his shoulders were tense, his smile strained at the edges as he chatted with the two men. Palomo laughed at something Ángel said, clapping a hand over the back of his neck and squeezing, and Charles saw Ángel’s harsh swallow all the way from where he stood.
“Take a look at that security,” said Charles, jerking his chin toward the table diagonal to Ángel’s booth. Four beefy, hard-eyed men occupied it, their plates untouched.
“Way to be inconspicuous,” Jade said with a snort. “They might as well be wearing buttons that say ‘I’m cartel, ask me how!’”
“We need to be careful about this,” Eva said. “I don’t think they’ll risk gunfire in a public place, but you never know. Sandman, Fury, how are we looking?”
“All quiet out front,” Shane reported. “Well, not quiet, but you know what I mean.”
“Ditto in the back. I’m ready to move when you are.”
“All right.” Eva smoothed out her dress, flipped her long blonde hair over one shoulder, and lifted her glass of wine. “Siren, be prepared to scramble cell phones on Griffin’s signal.”
Eva started across the restaurant, heading for Ángel’s table, teetering on her heels as if drunk. Charles set his own glass on the bar and moved in the opposite direction, though he kept an eye on her.
As Eva reached the booth, she stumbled over her own feet and lurched forward, dumping her red wine all over Ángel’s front. Ángel jerked in surprise, reaching out to steady her with one hand. The guards at the next table shifted, wary, but all it took was batted eyelashes, a smile, and a few charming apologies on Eva’s part to draw forth disarmed replies from Ángel’s companions. Eva tottered off, and Ángel slid out of the booth.
“Now, Siren.” Charles turned and walked as quickly as he could without drawing attention. The restaurant’s kitchen was massive, spanning the entire north wall, with doors on either end—one by the cartel’s booth, and the other opening into the same wide hallway that provided access to the restrooms. Palomo couldn’t have chosen a table more convenient to their team’s plan if he’d done it deliberately.
“Cell phones scrambled. Ninety seconds.”
“Whoa, they’re having two guys follow him,” Sakura said. “I thought his cover hadn’t been blown?”
“That was three days ago, and before his handler disappeared.” Charles ducked out of the dining room and into the restroom hallway.
“If his cover had been blown, he’d be dead, not having dinner with Palomo and company in a nice restaurant,” said Shane.
Sakura hummed agreement. “Either way, this is gonna get nasty. They’re only fifteen feet behind him.”
“I’ve got your back,” Eva said. “Just get Phoenix out of here.”
Ángel turned the corner into the hallway, pausing when he saw Charles. God, he was beautiful, as beautiful as the last day Charles had seen him—black hair falling loose into one eye, sensual mouth thin with anxiety, fine suit tailored to flatter every long line of his lithe, toned body.
Charles pushed open the kitchen door and tilted his head sharply. Ángel ran toward him.
They slammed into the kitchen together as the guards entered the hallway. The two men shouted in Spanish and gave chase, footsteps pounding behind Charles and Ángel as they bolted past the startled kitchen staff, dodging a cook coming off the back line. He dropped an armful of dishrags with a loud yelp.
“Palomo heard the shouting,” Jade said, all business now. “He’s realized his cell doesn’t work; he’s sending the other two guards after you. Move your ass.”
Charles grabbed Ángel’s elbow and hauled him through the back exit into the staff parking lot. Their black Suburban idled ten feet away, the rear door standing open.
The guards caught up with them then, one leaping forward to wrap an arm around Ángel’s throat. Without breaking stride, Ángel flipped the man over his shoulder so he landed hard on his back on the asphalt, then reached down and snatched his gun.
Charles drew his own gun as he spun to confront the second guard, who already had Charles in his sights. Eva came flying out of the restaurant, landing a hard kick to the back of the man’s leg that sent him to his knees. The man half turned, startled, and Eva grabbed his head with both hands, slamming his face into her kneecap. His nose broke with a loud crunch.
“Get in the car!” Eva said.
Ángel pulled his cell phone out of his jacket pocket, whipped it at the ground with a choked, angry cry, and stomped on it. Then he dove into the Suburban’s backseat with Charles right on his heels. Eva followed last, yanking the door shut. Sakura floored the accelerator and peeled out of the parking lot as the other two guards emerged from the restaurant at a dead run, firing off a few wild shots.
“Palomo came out the front; he’s getting in his car,” Shane said. “I’ll follow.”
Charles looked sideways at Ángel, silent beside him with a grim face and his hand tight around his stolen gun. Sakura swung the car onto the road that would lead them to the freeway.
“Uh, guys?” Shane said a couple of minutes later. “Palomo’s heading right for you. Like, right for you. I don’t know how, but he knows where you are.”
“Shit,” said Sakura. She changed lanes and made an abrupt right turn. “I’ll reroute.”
“What’s wrong?” Ángel asked.
“Palomo knows our location somehow,” Charles said. “You dumped your cell—is there another way he could be tracking you?”
“Fuck, I don’t know. It could be anything.” Gazing down at his own body, Ángel unbuckled his fancy watch, rolled down the window, and tossed it out onto the road. The watch was followed in short order by his suit jacket, his cufflinks, and—after a moment’s hesitation—his shoes.
“Okay, they’re slowing down,” said Shane. “They’re definitely confused.”
“Maintain evasive maneuvers for now,” Eva instructed Sakura.
Sakura nodded, taking them on a zigzagging route through a web of quiet residential streets with guidance from Jade, who sat in the front passenger seat with her computer open to a local map. Five tense, silent minutes later, Shane reported that Palomo had ceased pursuit. Everyone but Ángel let out a collective sigh of relief.
“Fury, get us to the airport ASAP,” Eva said. “Sandman, meet us there.”
“Looks like we lost them,” Charles said to Ángel.
Ángel set his gun down with a shuddering exhale, running both of his hands through his hair. He buckled his seat belt, then turned in his seat to face Charles with a small smile.
“Hello, Charles,” he said.
Cordelia Kingsbridge has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh, but quickly discovered that direct practice in the field was not for her. Having written novels as a hobby throughout graduate school, she decided to turn her focus to writing as a full-time career. Now she explores her fascination with human behavior, motivation, and psychopathology through fiction. Her weaknesses include opposites-attract pairings and snarky banter.
Away from her desk, Cordelia is a fitness fanatic, and can be found strength training, cycling, and practicing Krav Maga. She lives in South Florida but spends most of her time indoors with the air conditioning on full blast!
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