When the blood stopped oozing from James Braden's head, FBI Agent Ricky Hernandez knew his partner was finally dead. Hernandez was tucked behind a steel column in an abandoned airport hanger just inside the Mexican border. His partner was sprawled on the floor ten feet away, his body riddled with bullet holes from the ambush.
"Mr. Hernandez," the man's voice called out from behind him in a Mexican accent, "we have two kinds of soup today. We have chicken soup and we have screw-you soup. Unfortunately for you, we are out of chicken soup."
A roomful of laughter echoed throughout the empty chamber of aluminum roofing and corrugated steel walls. Hernandez judged about thirty men surrounded him with AK-47s, while Hernandez had an FBI issue 9mm pistol with just one solitary bullet left. He stared at Braden's corpse lying there in such an unnatural position, his eyes wide in horrified shock. Hernandez's legs trembled. His left eye had an uncontrollable twitch. The desert heat was so viciously oppressive, his sweat-soaked shirt stuck to his chest.
The voice taunting Hernandez belonged to Antonio Garza, known as El Carnicero throughout the world of Mexican cartels. The Butcher. He was an infamous assassin with a legendary reputation for torturing anyone who crossed him. Including undercover FBI agents posing as drug dealers. Hernandez had seen the remains of the bodies Garza had left behind. Fingers, eyes, tongues, all severed and stuck inside the victim's mouth, while the body floated in a vat of boiling water. The assassin was known to have a doctor on hand to continuously revive the victim and prolong the torment for hours, sometimes days.
"Mr. Hernandez," Garza said, closer now. "I make you a deal. Come out right now and I let you speak with your family. You can say a proper farewell, eh?"
Hernandez was in shock, his mind numb to the statement.
"You can't be saved, so make your peace," Garza ordered.
Among other things, Garza was a chronic liar. Hernandez was lured into Mexico while undercover, so there would be no rescue. He was out of US jurisdiction. Then it hit him. He still had a minute or two to say good-bye to his wife. He fumbled into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.
"I'm waiting," he heard Garza say.
Tears blurred his vision as he tried to find his Nicole's number in his contact list. He was bawling now, warm urine leaked from his bladder. Once he'd heard her voice he realized he wouldn't be able to speak. He was wasting too much time just trying to gather himself. Then he saw the name just above Nicole's. Nick Bracco. Hernandez knew then what he needed to do with the remaining seconds of his life. He pushed the button.
"Time is up," Garza called out.
"Hey, Ricky," came the voice on the phone.
"Nick," Hernandez stammered. "Nick can you . . ."
Hernandez's hands shook, tears crawled down his face. "Please tell Nicole . . ." he hiccupped and whimpered, "how much I adore her."
"Where are you, Ricky?" Nick demanded.
"Now!" the assassin screamed, a barrage of bullets exploded all around the agent as he shriveled up behind the column for protection. His legs were getting pounded by direct hits and ricochets.
"Ricky?" Nick shouted into the receiver.
The shooting stopped. The tops of Hernandez's feet were missing, only two toes stood out among the bloody stumps. Hernandez's stomach spiked up into his throat. "Nick," he uttered. "Promise me you'll kill him."
Footsteps came shuffling up behind him and Hernandez dropped the phone between his legs. He took one last look at his partner, then said, "I'll be right there, Jimmy." As he braced the tip of his pistol tight under his chin, the one thought which remained, the one glimmer of solace which contained him, was the thought that Garza would not survive long. Hernandez had an irrational rush of jubilation. Nick Bracco had been notified. Ricky Hernandez smiled.
Then he pulled the trigger.
* * *
Walt Jackson was considering going home. It was almost seven and his stomach was beginning to growl. He stood behind his desk, searching for a couple of secure flash drives he needed to take home, when his cell phone chirped. "Nick Bracco," came up on his display. As the Special Agent in Charge of the Baltimore field office, Walt was the head of an elite anti-terrorist task force simply known as, "The Team." Four of the shrewdest investigators the FBI had ever trained. Along with Nick and his partner Matt McColm, the team was split across the nation. Nick and Matt were in Arizona, while the other two worked out of the Baltimore field office. Nick Bracco was the lead agent of the group and rarely called to chitchat.
"What's up?" Walt asked, finding the two flash drives and slipping them into his pocket.
"Sorry, Walt," Nick said with a somber tone.
Walt's instincts told him to prepare for the worst.
"Tell me," Walt said.
"Jim and Ricky are dead."
Walt's pulse quickened. He felt lightheaded and plopped down in his leather chair with wobbly legs. He ran a hand over his face and looked at the floor. His new team was only six months old. They'd been grooming new members carefully ever since four of the original six members were murdered by a Russian assassin last year. Now the newborn group of four was down to two.
Walt had the overwhelming sense that he'd come too close to touching the sun and was now paying the price. He tried to control his breathing with mild success.
"You still there?" Nick asked.
"Yeah," Walt croaked.
"Jill and Nicole need to know."
"I'll take care of it."
"Sorry," Nick repeated.
"Damn it," Walt muttered. "Someone gave them up."
"Someone on our side."
"I don't know, but I will."
Walt took longer breaths while Nick patiently waited for him to recover.
"You took every possible precaution, Walt. There was no way to eliminate all the risk."
"No I didn't, or we wouldn't have two more dead agents on the team."
Walt's stomach tightened, while his head throbbed. He was clearly losing the battle with his emotions, but needed a clear mind. He needed to make the right choices or the damage could accumulate.
"Nick," Walt said into the phone, rubbing his temple. "You can't go down there."
"I'm serious. Once you cross that border, you're alone. Completely."
"I mean, these cartels, for crying out loud, Nick, they are the law down there."
Walt looked around to assure his solitude. He was in his office with the door closed, yet
still knew enough to keep his voice low. "You're going to need help."
This one seemed to stop Nick. Walt could tell his lead agent was surprised by his suggestion. "You mean . . . Tommy?"
There was no other help Walt could've been suggesting. The CIA was constantly at war with his division and adding untrained FBI agents to the body count simply wasn't acceptable. Nick's cousin Tommy, however, had roots within a well-known Sicilian family which occasionally operated outside the law. A family whose information had been very instrumental in capturing terrorists in the past. It was a relationship Walt found uncomfortable, but the return on investment had been remarkable.
"Yes," Walt confirmed. "He'll have contacts which could be extremely valuable."
"Okay," Nick said.
"I mean, we can't afford to send shoes down there to muddle things up. The more agents we send, the scarier it gets. We use the surgical tactic we've planned. The smaller, the better."
"That's fine, Walt, but I'll need Stevie to bring some tech toys with him."
Walt looked out the bulletproof window behind his desk. The setting sun cast a shadow over the few cars left in the parking lot. His wife probably had his cold dinner already wrapped and in the refrigerator. After thirty years of marriage, she'd still be waiting for him with a smile and a kiss.
"I'll have Stevie on the first flight out in the morning."
"Good," Nick said.
There was a silence while the two of them put their thoughts together. Walt wanted to tell Nick he'd hop on a plane and be there himself, but as he stared outside, he could sense the sun setting in too many ways. He owed it to his wife to be there. She'd seen too much action.
As if Nick could translate the silence, he said, "Stay where you are, Walt. You're more valuable to me inside the beltway where you can get decisions made."
Walt took the cue and said, "Nick."
Walt squeezed his eyes shut. "Please. Be careful."
Not far from the US border, Antonio Garza, El Carnicero, stood inside the walls of his complex with a hose, watering the vincas and grumbling to some nearby soldiers about the status of his plants.
"Lo siento," one of the soldiers said with an uneasy expression.
"In English," Garza snapped. "Always, in English, you fool."
"Sorry," the soldier apologized.
Garza insisted his inner circle used their second language, because they needed the practice for when they crossed the border and tried to assimilate into the American public.
The late summer heat might have caused his garden to wilt, but that's all that was drooping. His income had been growing remarkably over the past couple of years and the future looked bright. Being an independent contractor for the various cartels made him a necessity to everyone, yet no one's enemy.
Just in case, his complex was surrounded by a ten foot block wall with subtle parapets for his guards to monitor the perimeter. The complex was able to withstand an attack from any number of weapons-including rocket-propelled-grenades. It was topped with a rectangular balcony which doubled as a watchtower.
Not by chance, the eight-thousand-square-foot building itself was built of brick on the side of a hill and housed thirty-five militia warriors, ready to follow his orders at a moments notice.
From behind him, Garza heard a window creak open and his primary lieutenant, Victor Sanchez, nodded for his attention.
Garza waved back. "Okay, I'll be right there." He handed the hose to one of the soldiers and gave instructions, then ran up the outdoor spiral staircase to his second floor office. It was an oversized room with dark tiled floors and rounded doorways with views from every direction. From there it was easy to spot anyone approaching the complex.
Garza passed a couple of armed guards on the way and as he arrived, he found Victor standing beside his desk holding out a cell phone.
Garza took the phone and smiled as he sat down and stretched his feet up on the desk. "How are you, my American friend?" he asked.
The man on the line didn't sound like he appreciated the comment. "I have your information."
"Please," Garza waved his hand in a wide circle, "tell me everything."
"His name is Nick Bracco," the man said. "He's been the Bureau's top anti-terrorist agent for over a decade. He has a wife and an infant son. His partner's name is Matt McColm. McColm is a sharpshooter who used to be with Special Forces before joining the Bureau. Neither of these men are stupid. They should not be taken lightly."
"Excellent," Garza said. "How motivated are they to come get me?"
"Very. You just killed two of their friends. They will retaliate."
"Fantastic." Garza's eyes sparkled. "What else?"
There was a silence, which meant the American was considering how much to contribute.
"My friend," Garza said. "Now is no time to be shy. We have much too much at stake. No?"
The line remained quiet for a few seconds. Garza waited.
"There is one other thing you should know," the man said. "Bracco comes from a Sicilian family. His cousin, Tommy, has connections within a particular crime family out of the Baltimore area. No one knows how deep these relationships run, but there's been rumors throughout the Bureau that Tommy has actually helped the FBI capture terrorists. He supposedly has informants all over the place. Maybe even below the border."
Garza pulled his feet down from his desk. "You mean the FBI is using criminals to help them? Is that legal in your country?"
"Technically they're informants, but they're treated like consultants. The information flows both ways, however. There's certainly some questionable ethical debates, but no one within the government is anxious to prosecute someone who's rounding up bad guys."
Garza twisted his chair to get a good look out the window. In the distance, past the airport hangar and the two-mile stretch of high desert landscape, was the border. He had so many good ideas roaming in his mind, he couldn't help but smile.
"Where does this Agent Bracco live?" Garza said, pulling a notepad from his desk drawer.
"In Payson, Arizona," the man said.
Garza found a pen in the same drawer. "And exactly what is his address?"
The man gave it to Garza and he wrote it down. El Carnicero circled the address and leaned back and sighed. "I have many surprises planned for this agent."
"I'm sure you do," the man said with no emotion in his voice.
Garza disconnected the call and placed the phone in his lap. He considered his next move. After a few minutes, he pushed a button on his phone. When a man answered, he said, "Expect company."
"We've been waiting," the man said.
Garza hung up the phone and went over to his window. Just below him, within the secure walls of his compound, his seven-year-old son Julio was waving a baseball at his dad.
"Papa," he screamed. "Play with me."
Amidst the soldiers with assault rifles, Julio was tossing the ball in the air and catching it with his baseball glove. It was a lonely existence for the boy, not being able to play with friends like a normal child. Since his mother was shot during a drug bust, Garza had been the boy's sole friend.
Garza smiled. Julio was the only person who had received his unconditional affection. The boy's attitude and zeal for life was the antidote to the daily stresses of his work. He picked up a worn baseball glove from a side table near the door and opened the window. "I'll be right down," he yelled.
It was only 6:15 AM in the Bracco house, but infants couldn't read digital clocks so Nick's son, Thomas, was up and ready to go. Thomas was on his back kicking his legs in the air with a playful smile. Julie Bracco changed his diaper on one side of their bed while Nick threw underwear into a canvas bag on the other side.
Julie tickled her son's tummy while she asked Nick, "How long will you be gone?"
"A few days," Nick said, acting as casual as possible about his treacherous assignment. He tossed some shirts into the bag and caught a reflection from the lake in their backyard.
From their second floor bedroom window, Nick could see the lake glistening in the early morning sunlight, while pine trees cast long shadows across its shoreline. He'd moved his family to Payson, Arizona, to escape the threat and stress of dealing with terrorists, but the move hadn't changed the landscape. It certainly didn't dissuade a Kurdish terrorist from tracking him down and attempting to murder him and his wife. It was the final act of the terrorist's career and prompted Nick to install a high-tech security system just for times like these.
Nick decided to remain in the mountain community hoping his wife and infant son would be safer, while he operated the west coast division of the Bureau's anti-terrorist task force. Now, he wanted his wife to feel secure while he left and found revenge for a couple of his close FBI teammates.
As if she could sense the tension in Nick's mind, Julie looked up from the bed with a worried expression. "What's going on?"
Thomas kicked his tiny legs in the air and giggled while Julie patted his bottom with powder.
Nick grabbed a few shirts from the closet, then sat next to her. "Ricky and Jim are dead."
Her mouth opened and her face scrunched up into a combination of horror and confusion. "But, how?"
Nick locked eyes on her and kept them there. "They were outed while working undercover."
Julie glanced down at Thomas and secured his diaper.
Julie glanced at the open canvas bag, then back to Nick. "That's where you're going, isn't it?" She scooped up Thomas and clutched him to her chest as if he might need extra security.
He gave his son a soft kiss on his smooth cheek, then brushed back an imaginary hair on Thomas's head. "I'm not taking any chances," he said with as much conviction as he could.
Julie looked up at the ceiling with glossy eyes. "It's been so quiet. Have you been keeping things from me?"
"No," he lied.
She looked down at Thomas wiggling in her arms. "Are we in danger?"
Nick stood up, folded his shirts and shoved them into his bag. He tried to act casual for this one. "I don't think so, but I'm going to have Jennifer stay with you just in case."
Julie examined his demeanor while he opened a dresser drawer and grabbed some socks. Having the lone resident FBI agent from Payson staying at your house would seem like an extreme measure for an average family, but Jennifer Steele was no ordinary FBI agent. She was Matt McColm's girlfriend. The same Matt McColm who'd been Nick's partner for the past decade. Jennifer and Matt were regular visitors to the Bracco home and many times had spent the night in the guest bedroom when the beer and wine flowed in abundance.
Thomas became fussy, maybe sensing the anxiety between them. Nick went over and took him from Julie. He smiled at his son and received a smile back.
"Who's my good boy?" he asked Thomas.
Julie put her head on Nick's shoulder and seemed to accept her fate. "How long will you be gone?"
"A week, maybe less."
"You take your pills?"
"They're packed," Nick said, referring to the medication to keep his PTSD in check. He'd been diagnosed with the disorder a year back when the stress of battling terrorists had become too much for his brain to handle.
She sighed, the two of them now staring jubilantly at their proudest possession.
"Jule," Nick said, still looking at Thomas.
"He has your eyes."
He could feel her face smile.
A car pulled up in the front of the house. Nick went over and glanced out a side window to catch a view of the vehicle.
"Hey, check this out," Nick said, calling Julie to the window. "You've never witnessed the good-bye ritual before."
Julie came over and leaned into the window to get a better view. They could see Jennifer Steele grab a bag from the back seat and move around to the driver's side and duck in through the window. She gave Matt a kiss, then dropped her bag and wrapped both arms around her boyfriend, while Matt pulled her halfway into the car, the two of them voraciously going at it, time seeming to be no option.
Julie sighed. "Remember when we were like that?"
"C'mon, Jule," Nick said. "We're still like that. Only difference is, we aren't as insecure about our relationship."
"So that's what this is," she said, watching the two lovers keeping the embrace alive. "Insecurity?"
"Of course," Nick said, grinning now, because the kiss didn't seem to have a shelf life. "I mean, who needs that long to express their feelings?"
Julie reached her free arm around Nick's waist and gave him a long kiss. Thomas gurgled up spit on Nick's neck and the expulsion quickly ended the romantic interlude.
Nick handed Thomas back to her and grabbed a towel from the dresser. He returned with a disgusted expression while wiping his neck. "Maybe, there's another reason for our lack of romance."
The front door opened and footsteps came up the stairs.
"Knock, knock," Jennifer Steele said from the foyer.
"We're in the bedroom," Julie called out.
Jennifer came in wearing jeans, a Phoenix Suns T-shirt and a baseball cap with a ponytail hanging from the back. She dropped a heavy duffle bag on the floor and rubbed her shoulder.
Nick lifted the bag, then quickly returned it to the floor. "What kind of protection are you packing, Agent Steele?"
"The usual," Steele smiled and left it at that.
A car horn honked. Steele pointed a thumb over her shoulder. "He's waiting."
Nick quickly threw his shaving kit into the bag, then kissed Julie and Thomas before heading for the door.
"I'll text you when we get there," he said.
Steele held his arm, a little longer than necessary. She looked at him with a deadpan stare. "Be careful."
Nick nodded casually, not wanting to add to the tension he could see in Julie's eyes. "Of course."
He left the house and tossed his bag into the back seat of his partner's Ford Expedition. Matt McColm handed him an apple as he strapped himself into the passenger seat.
"Thanks," Nick said, taking a bite from the apple.
Matt drove to the end of the driveway and stopped, looking over his left shoulder at the house.
"Julie okay?" Matt said.
"As okay as she'll ever be."
"What does that mean?"
"It means, she doesn't want to know where I'm going, but she asks anyway. Then she frets about every possible scenario." Nick ran a hand through his hair. "I don't know, buddy. These days I wonder if a job with the postal service isn't a good choice."
"Yeah, well, they're laying off a lot of postal employees these days," Matt said. "So you'd probably be out of work and scrounging around for mortgage money. Be grateful you haven't had the financial stress most Americans have had to face."
Nick sighed, thinking of what lie ahead of them.
"Stevie coming?" Matt asked.
"It's going to get ugly," Matt said.
Nick glanced back at his house where both of his prized possessions resided. "It always does," he said.
* * *
After picking up Stevie Gilpin at the airport, Nick and Matt debriefed him on the way to Tucson. Gilpin was a slim young man with thin, frameless glasses and an insatiable penchant for all things technical.
Nick looked over his shoulder at Stevie who was playing with one of his mechanical toys. "Are you listening to me?"
"Of course," Stevie said with an easy smile. "Unlike some older agents, I can multitask."
Matt grinned from behind the wheel. "I'm not even forty, so don't go shoveling dirt on me just yet."
Nick pointed to an abandoned building in the center of an empty parking lot. "There," he said. "Park in the back."
The building was the size of an enormous superstore with no other marking but the faded letters where the original sign covered the paint. In the rear of the building was a row of cars parked under a strip of metal covering to protect against the Arizona summer heat. Matt pulled into one of the empty spots and turned off the car.
Nick twisted in his seat. "Stevie?"
While still pushing buttons on a small electronic device, Stevie said, "I know. Stay close to you and don't talk to anyone."
Nick got out of the car satisfied his instructions were heard. When they approached the white metal door, Nick spied the miniature camera above a wall light. To the unobservant eye it would seem as if this were a vacant building instead of the Southwest's largest Homeland Security office.
Before pushing the button on the wall next to the door, Nick turned to Matt and said, "You ready?"
Matt stuck a piece of chewing gum in his mouth and nodded. "Uh huh."
Nick hit the button next to an employee card scanning device and waited only a few seconds before the door opened. A chiseled man in fatigues with an assault rifle strapped around his neck stood waiting for them.
Nick held up his FBI shield and received a nod from the man who stepped aside and allowed the three agents to pass. Without a word spoken, they entered the building. The place was an enormous hollowed out warehouse with a high ceiling and no walls to separate anyone. To their left was a large cage where several German Shepherds paced around each other, prancing on their toes, anxious for action. On the opposite side of the massive facility was the only closed-in room, the size of a volleyball court. That's where all the impounded drugs would be stored.
Throughout the gutted warehouse were dozens of desks with computers and small lamps. Border Patrol agents banged on keyboards and moved around the facility with an organized choreography which denoted years of practice. The floor had been stripped down to the cement so an echo rang out with every phone call and every conversation. A concrete stairway led up to a second floor loft with just enough room for a secretary's desk, a couple of waiting couches, and the one large office which would be the command center. Nick knew the Deputy Director would be working up there.
Nick led the way, walking with authority in order to diminish any chance for confrontation. Although he was seething, he kept a placid expression and nodded as he passed people at their desks. They headed up the staircase and upon reaching the top, Nick approached the solitary desk where a woman eyed the three men warily. He held out his credentials and smiled.
"Margie, you don't know us," Nick said, affably, "but we're old Navy buddies of Roger's and I want to surprise him."
The secretary looked over the three agents who acted like they were visiting Santa. "Well, he's on the phone right now, but once he's off, I'll let him know you're here."
Nick pointed to the phone on her desk with a solitary green light designating a current call in progress. He held his index finger to his mouth in a mischievous gesture. "Shh," he said, heading toward the closed door. "Once he sees us, he'll hang up. Promise. He might get a little animated, though. We were a pretty close group."
Nick headed to the door with Matt and Stevie behind him. As he grabbed the doorknob, he turned to the secretary, who was halfway out of her seat. "If he doesn't get off the phone within five seconds, you can come and chase us out."
This put the secretary back in her chair with a dubious glare.
Nick smiled. "Start counting."
The three agents entered the windowless office. Matt closed the door behind them.
Roger Decker was a stocky guy with a beefy, motorcycle cop mustache. His desk fronted a gigantic wall map of Arizona with mountains and buttes protruding from its surface to accent the topography. Decker sat behind his desk with the phone to his ear. As soon as he saw the trio approach, he pulled the phone down and said, "Who the fuck are you?"
Nick calmly grabbed the phone from Decker's hand and slammed it down on the cradle. A complete look of astonishment covered Decker's face. Matt came around the desk and pulled up on Decker's white, button-down shirt, until the man was upright, then shoved the Deputy Director against the wall.
"This is a hostile takeover, asshole," Matt spat at him.
Nick slid into the Director's chair and began tapping on the keyboard.
Stevie seemed to want to explain things, so he held up his FBI shield. "We're with the Bureau," he said.
Decker looked confused.
Matt gave Stevie an angry glare. "Did you forget your instructions already?"
The technologist looked apologetic.
Nick pointed to a chair in front of Decker's desk. "Sit down."
Matt reached for Decker again, but this time he shoved Matt's arms away and moved to sit in the chair on his own. A tiny show of defiance in an otherwise submissive situation.
Decker's face twisted into a nasty snarl. "What gives you the right to barge into my office like this?"
Nick found the page he wanted, then twisted the thin monitor so Decker could get a good view. "This gives me the right," Nick said. "I received this picture from Antonio Garza a few hours ago."
The Deputy Director's face became pale and his eyes wide. Subconsciously, he rubbed his neck. "El Carnicero?"
"The very same."
Stevie stretched to see the photo over Decker's shoulder. He looked like he might get sick. The picture showed two headless males sitting with their backs against a gray wall, nothing but bloody stumps on top of their shoulders. Their heads sat in their laps with forced smiles on the faces.
"These two men were working undercover," Nick said. "There were only three men who knew their identity and one of them had to give them up to Garza, there's no other explanation for this."
Decker looked as if he had just bit into a lemon. He twisted the monitor away from him.
"Okay," Decker said, "you made your point. But what has this got to do with me?"
"These three men work out of this office."
"What?" Decker held up his hands. "You were running an undercover operation out of my office and you didn't consult me?"
Nick folded his arms. "I don't have time to explain our motives. The less people who knew meant the less people who could tip off Garza." Nick gestured toward the monitor. "Obviously, we had one too many people involved already."
Decker seemed disgusted. "Who are you? You never told me your name."
"Bracco?" Decker said, his eyes darting side-to-side until a flicker of recognition came across his face. "You're the terrorist expert. What are you doing messing with drug cartels? This is way out of your league."
"No, Mr. Decker, I'm not messing with cartels. I'm messing with Antonio Garza. He's not a drug smuggler. He's the gatekeeper for any cartel who wants a guaranteed entry into the United States. These drug lords know that thirty percent of their product will get confiscated, that's already built into the price. But if someone needs assurance that a certain product will make it across-they contact Garza. He's the one who can make it happen."
Decker shook his head. "You're talking to me like I'm in kindergarten. I know more about Antonio Garza than you ever will, so don't come in here and act like you're a genius because you've figured that out." Decker got out of his chair and roamed the interior of his office, looking at the three agents with disdain. "You're upset Garza killed two of your men . . . well, shit, he's probably killed over a hundred of my men. Men with families and courage and integrity. This war on drugs is expensive in more ways than one and no one outside of this building has any idea what's going on out there."
Decker returned to his chair and waited for a response. Nick looked up at Matt who was itching for conflict. Stevie stood in the background waiting to help.
Nick leaned forward and dropped his elbows on the desk. "First of all, I don't give a crap about the drug war. If it were up to me I'd legalize the stuff and let nature take its course."
"Then what?" Decker said. "Revenge? You think you're going to get to Garza when the entire force of eight thousand Border Patrol agents couldn't?" Decker glanced around the room. "You three?" He laughed. "Boy, are you in for a surprise."
Nick stood up and ran a hand through his hair. He wasn't about to give out any more information than he had to. He pointed to Matt. "Give him the names."
Matt pulled a card from his pants pocket and handed it to Decker.
"What's this?" Decker asked.
"Get these guys in here now," Nick said.
Decker examined the card. "These are three of my best agents. I'm afraid your information is faulty."
Nick was growing impatient. His stomach simmered with an intense desire for answers, but he wasn't sure how much to trust anyone. Even Decker. He sat at the edge of the desk and glared at the Deputy Director. "Now," he said.
Decker didn't seem to have options. Any hesitation on his part could cause the appearance of a cover-up. Even if he thought his men were clean, he couldn't afford to be complicit. He grabbed the cell phone from his desk and made three calls. His tone was firm, but not forced or phony. When he finished the final call, he looked up at Nick and asked. "What now?"
Nick turned to look at the physical map on the wall behind him and pointed to a specific spot. "Now, you're going to tell me everything you know about this region of the border."
Decker's face lost its angry tone and was replaced by a new emotion. Pity.
"Please don't tell me you're going to do what I think you're going to do," Decker said.
Nick said nothing. The frightened look on the Deputy Director's face was enough to allow a shred of doubt to creep into Nick's mind. He just wished his plan didn't include so many variables.
Antonio Garza sat at the kitchen table helping Julio with his homework. School was starting earlier in the year and Garza was adamant about Julio's education. He wanted the boy to grow up and live a clean life, without the stress and terror his father had to endure. The dirty dinner plates were still beside them on the table.
"Papa," Julio said, writing in his notebook. "Donde esta mi madre?"
"En Ingles, mi hijo."
"Because," Garza said, looking around to assure their solitude, "we may not always live in Mexico."
"Why?" the boy asked.
"Well," Garza said, "one day we may decide to live far away from here where English is the main language and it would be important for you to be able to speak with your neighbors."
The boy's eyes brightened. "You mean we could have neighbors? Like Pablo and Salvador? We could live next door to them?"
Garza smiled, ruffling up his son's hair. "Maybe," he said.
A thought seemed to cross Julio's mind and his face became somber. "Is that where Mama is?"
Garza had waited as long as possible for this conversation, but needed to wait just a little longer. "Maybe," Garza said, keeping the lie alive.
"When?" Julio asked, anxious to know his fate.
"I don't know, hijo. Maybe soon."
Through the upstairs kitchen window a pair of headlights could be seen traveling up the dirt road toward the complex. The road was three miles of pure desert landscape with no shelter along the way. It was the only way in and the only way out.
Following his father's gaze, Julio began to gather his homework.
"Yes, Papa," Julio said without being told a thing. "You have a business meeting, I know."
Garza sighed. He took his son in his arms and said, "I do everything for you, Julio. Do you understand?"
Julio looked up into his father's eyes. "No, Papa."
Garza pulled him into his chest and smiled. "Someday you will, hijo. Someday."
The boy left the room and Garza headed downstairs, passing three soldiers on the way. The last one was bigger than the rest and didn't carry an assault rifle around his shoulder. When Garza saw him, he slowed his stride down the final couple of steps.
"Visitor, Jefe," Victor Sanchez said.
"Yes, I know," Garza said. "Bring him to the basement."
"As you wish."
Garza grabbed Victor's arm. "Make sure you check him thoroughly, eh?"
Garza crossed the tiled foyer, down a wide corridor to an open room where five of his soldiers sat around a card table, playing Mexican Poker. One wall was lined with large surveillance monitors, two of which were infrared cameras scanning the perimeter of the facility.
Garza pointed to the wall. "Is anyone paying attention?"
They all looked at their boss with startled expressions and three of them spoke at once. Their voices overlapped, but two of them gestured toward a soldier at the table with no cards in front of him. It took Garza a moment to realize they were telling him that one person sits out each hand to watch the monitors.
Garza waved the back of his hand, then headed down a second set of stairs. The basement was bare cement walls with no pictures or decorations of any kind. There were dim spotlights recessed in the ceiling and a large screen television fronted by a leather sofa and wooden coffee table. It was a place for Garza to relax and watch baseball games at night. He'd grown to love the sport and became a big Los Angeles Dodger fan. There were a couple of recliners on either side of the sofa, but Garza always preferred to stretch out on the couch and rest his feet on the coffee table.
Garza chose the basement for his meeting because it was out of eavesdropping distance from the rest of the building. Once the door was shut it offered complete solitude. There was a bar at the far end of the room and Garza felt the need for a drink.
He poured himself a shot of mescal, then threw his head back and downed it in one gulp. The door at the top of the stairs opened and Victor Sanchez came down the steps followed by a man wearing a white Polo shirt, chinos and topsiders with no socks. He had a neatly trimmed beard and a large briefcase. The man looked like a tourist, but for the aged eyes. Two piercing tunnels of intensity which had Garza checking with Victor and getting the nod that the man was unarmed.
The man approached with his hand extended. "Mr. Garza. I'm Sadeem."
Garza gave Sadeem, or whatever his real name was, an extra firm handshake, then pointed to one of the recliners. "Have a seat."
The man sat and put the briefcase between his legs. Victor took a few steps back to stand guard, but Garza motioned him out of the room and Victor hesitantly complied.
Garza knew some negotiating techniques from the many books he'd read and when he sat down in the opposite recliner, he crossed his legs and kept his mouth shut. According to his books, the first person who broke the silence was the weaker of the two.
But when Sadeem finally spoke, it was with a Mid-Eastern accent that Garza couldn't quite determine. It was either the accent or those cold vacant eyes which made Garza's book knowledge seem irrelevant.
"You have quite a reputation, Mr. Garza," the man said with a sly grin, which passed as his smile.
"Yes, I do," Garza said.
Sadeem positioned the briefcase onto the coffee table and fell back into his chair. Garza couldn't help but gaze at the case.
"The shipment will be ready in two days," the man said. "Will you be ready?"
This was meant to be antagonizing, but somehow it came out as a threat to Garza's ears.
"Do you question my abilities?" Garza responded.
"You have a tunnel?" Sadeem asked. "Is that how you guarantee the transfer?"
Now Garza was certain this was some test. The man glanced around the room as if searching for a security camera.
"You begin this relationship with an insult?" Garza said. "Is that correct?"
The man's demeanor changed. He seemed more of a businessman than an interrogator. He reached with both hands and unlatched the briefcase, then opened it up and turned it toward Garza.
The first thought that went through Garza's mind was, there's too much there. He'd seen stacks of hundreds which added up to a quarter million or even a half million, but this was way more than expected.
As if Sadeem could read Garza's mind, he said, "Five million."
Garza tilted his head. No one overpays by four million dollars unless they want something extra. Something more than expected. Something dangerous.
"Now do you understand why I ask so many questions?" the man said.
"I understand that you want more than we agreed upon."
"No," Sadeem said firmly. "We want nothing more than what you said you could provide. Safe passage to the United States."
The basement was completely still as the two men stared each other down.
Garza rubbed the back of his neck and it came to him. Why hadn't he thought of it sooner?
"This shipment," Garza said. "It is not drugs, is it?"
Sadeem shook his head. "It's the reason I ask whether you are using a tunnel. There are certain . . . uh, requirements the shipment needs in order to remain stable. The temperature outside is too hot. This load should not be left outdoors for long periods of time."
Now Garza understood the payment. "Precisely how dangerous is this shipment?"
"In its current form it is completely harmless. However, should the container be opened,
there is no guarantee."
Garza was ready for another shot of mescal. He was also ready to send this man and his briefcase and his smug attitude on his way. But there were five million reasons why he didn't. The man seemed to understand this and he became even more comfortable in his recliner.
"Recently, you have invited the interest of some American law enforcement officials," Sadeem said. "Is that a wise decision?"
Garza could feel his blood pressure rise. He wasn't used to having his decisions questioned and it didn't sit well with him. He wondered why the man was so at ease in Garza's lair, swollen with soldiers geared to protect him.
Garza came to his feet and felt the man's eyes follow him as he began a slow pace behind the recliner. "You spoke about my reputation," Garza said. "Did it occur to you that I might have provoked this attention on purpose?"
"No," Sadeem said. "That hadn't crossed my mind."
"Then please allow me to do my job." Garza pointed to the briefcase. "Obviously, someone thinks very highly of my abilities."
The man nodded. Garza had made his point. Sadeem was obviously a courier and no more. People of importance had hired him to make the delivery and he appeared to be overstepping his boundaries.
"Okay." Sadeem stood and slowly made his way to Garza. "I have enough information. You will meet our men precisely when we have agreed. Yes?"
Garza looked at the man's outstretched hand. One last gesture before he could take custody of his largest payday ever. Deep inside he didn't trust this man, yet he couldn't place strict evidence on his suspicions. Over Sadeem's shoulder sat the open briefcase, the five million taunting him. Garza wondered whether it was designed to be positioned that way on purpose, or whether it was pure greed which had him firmly shaking Sadeem's hand.
"Yes," Garza. "We will be ready."
The three Border Patrol agents sat across the desk from Nick, side-by-side, with nervous ticks and darting glances between their fellow employees and the Deputy Director who sat in a chair next to the desk facing them. Matt and Stevie stood in the rear of the room. It was just past lunchtime, but without windows, Nick had to rely on the digital clock on the wall to determine the time of day.
"Now listen," Roger Decker said, leaning forward with his hand on his knees, "no one is accusing any of you of wrongdoing."
Nick was allowing Decker to save face and discuss the matter with his agents first, but the fact Nick sat behind the desk let them know who was in charge. Decker had no interrogative skills whatsoever. His main detainee spoke a different language so many details ended up lost in translation. Nick felt his phone vibrate and when he pulled it from his pocket he could see the name of the person who had just left a text message. Nicole Hernandez. Ricky's widow. A spike of bile rushed up his throat. He'd made a personal guarantee to Nicole that Ricky would be fine going undercover. He assured her the FBI would keep close tabs on both agents.
Now he touched the screen on his phone and cringed when he saw the two word message.
Nick's face flushed as he leaned back and shut his eyes before anyone could detect the episode he was having. He felt the outside of his empty pocket and realized he'd forgotten to take his PTSD meds for the day. He practiced his breathing exercises and gained control of his emotions. As his heart pounded, he gathered his thoughts, trying to grasp just what had gone wrong. Ricky and Jim were supposed to be picking up a client of Antonio Garza's at the makeshift runway when they were ambushed by Garza's men. Both FBI agent's were exceptionally talented and couldn't possibly have tipped Garza with their actions. Someone had to set them up. And Nick was convinced it was someone in the room with him right then.
When Nick came upright again, the three Border Patrol agents looked as if they were getting sick listening to Decker explain the understandable consequences of dealing with nasty people. The scolding was a bit tame for Nick's taste.
"Roger," Nick said. "Why don't you run out and grab a sandwich."
Decker seemed annoyed at Nick's patronization, but he must've seen the burning hostility brewing in Nick's eyes because he retreated with a simple nod and was out the door.
Matt shut the door behind him while Nick gestured to Stevie to get ready. The FBI techie took a flat stick from his duffle bag and began pushing buttons on the stick. The three Border Patrol agents kept an eye on what Stevie was doing until Nick snapped his fingers and said, "Over here. I need your attention on me."
As they returned their attention to Nick, Stevie waved the flat wand behind the men, slowly working up and down their bodies.
Nick gestured to the desk in front of him. "Please place your cell phones on the desk."
The three agents did as they were told.
Stevie worked his wand meticulously until he stood behind the agent to Nick's left and nodded.
Nick looked at the other two agents and said, "Get out of here."
The men looked bewildered, but didn't hesitate at their good fortune. They gathered their cell phones and moved. Just before they left, Nick said, "Don't leave the building until I say you can."
Matt closed the door behind them and took the vacant seat two chairs away from the remaining agent. He glowered at the agent. Intimidation was half the battle.
"What's your name?" Nick asked.
The way Chapin fidgeted convinced Nick he had the right guy.
Nick pointed to the front of his desk at Chapin's cell phone. "Now let's see your other one."
Chapin seemed confused. "My other one?"
"Your other cell phone," Nick explained. "The one you kept in your pocket when I asked for your cell phones."
Chapin hesitated too long. It seemed he was trying to decide how Nick could've known about the phone, or how much it mattered that he withheld the device. He looked at Matt who sat stone-faced, chewing on a piece of gum.
"What makes you think I have another cell phone?" Chapin asked, being somewhat evasive and putting the burden of proof on Nick.
Nick wasn't in the mood for playing games. Not now. He leaned forward and glared at the agent. "Put the damn phone on my desk or I'll have my partner rip your clothes off."
Chapin turned to see Matt cross his legs. He offered a menacing grin.
Chapin reluctantly pulled a cell phone from the inside of his jacket pocket and placed it on the desk.
Nick grabbed the phone and tossed it to Stevie, who began to play with it.
Chapin paid too much attention to Stevie which added to Nick's suspicions.
"Why the extra phone?" Nick asked.
"I don't want my government to hear every conversation I have with my family," Chapin said with a rehearsed tone.
Nick nodded. "I see." He looked at Matt. "How many phones do you have?"
Matt held up his index finger.
"Stevie," Nick said, "how many phones do you have?"
"One," Stevie said, examining Chapin's cell.
Nick returned his attention to Matt again. "Who tends to have more than one phone?"
"Anyone who's trying to hide something."
Stevie came around the desk and handed the phone to Nick and pointed to something on the screen. Nick nodded while Stevie returned to the back of the room.
While examining the screen, Nick said, "Where does your family live, Mr. Chapin?"
The Border Patrol agent seemed to be thinking of the best answer to use in this situation. It certainly wasn't going to be the truth, because the truth didn't take that much time to consider.
Finally Chapin said, "Phoenix."
"Then why is there only one phone number in your contact list and the number is a San Diego area code?"
Chapin gave it a few moments to mull over. He put his head in his hands and closed his eyes. "It's nothing sinister."
"I'm listening," Nick said.
Chapin bent over, groaned in pain, then came up with his gun, his eyes wild with fear. He pushed away from his chair and stood with the pistol trained on Nick.
"I'm getting out," Chapin said.
"No you're not," Nick assured him.
"You can't stop me," Chapin said, a crazy delirium planted on his face. He whirled around and pointed the gun at Stevie.
Even though he knew it was coming, Nick winced as the gunshot rang out in the small room. Chapin howled, while clutching his bare hand. The same hand which held a gun moments earlier. Stevie quickly picked up Chapin's gun from the floor.
By the time Nick came around the desk, Matt had already holstered his Glock. He was the quickest draw in the Bureau and possibly the nation. Nick examined the Border Patrol agent's hand. It was red and scraped up, but nothing permanent. It was only Matt's pinpoint accuracy which saved him.
Resigned to his fate, Chapin fell to his knees, grasped his damaged hand and began to sob. He curled up on the floor as the anguish oozed from his body in the form of tears and moans and undecipherable words.
Nick didn't feel the least bit compassion for the man. He was certain Chapin was the reason Ricky and Jim were dead. The reason Nick had to call Nicole Hernandez and explain why he hadn't kept his promise.
The office door opened and Decker stood there with two armed agents. He stared at Chapin as the agent moaned, but otherwise seemed unharmed.
"We've got it under control," Nick said, then slammed the door shut.
Matt opened the door and stuck his head out to say a few words, then pulled his head back and shut the door again.
"You stupid bastard?" Nick spat, standing over Chapin, every muscle taut and ready to unleash a fury of kicks. "How much did Garza pay to have my friends killed?"
"No," Chapin uttered, his arms covering his head ready to be assaulted.
Nick got down to a knee and burrowed into the man's face. "How much!"
"No," Chapin murmured again. "She's going to die."
Nick looked at Matt who stood beside him with a quizzical expression.
"What did you say?" Nick asked.
Chapin found the strength to shove Nick and sit up against the wall. "My daughter," he said staring at the ceiling. His breathing was labored and his head flopped to the side. A look of pure despair showed in his eyes. "Garza kidnapped her two weeks ago. He's going to kill her if I don't tell him everything." He looked up at the three FBI agents. "She's thirteen."
"Shit," Matt muttered.
"Why didn't you come to us?" Nick said. "You're a government agent. We would've brought our best people to handle it."
Chapin rolled his eyes deliriously. "Yeah, right." He pointed his thumb to the closed door. "Half the damn staff is on Garza's payroll. He already knows you're here." Chapin covered his eyes. "She could be dead already."
The agent was near catatonic. He was of no value to Nick in his current condition. Nick was certain Chapin was overstating Garza's reach, but he understood the paranoia.
"You have no idea what you're up against," Chapin's voice was weak and shallow. "He has connections everywhere." With this, Chapin looked straight up at Nick with swollen eyes. "I'm serious. The guy has informants on both sides of the border. He's unreachable. You can't get to him. You have rules and regulations to follow. He doesn't."
Nick and Matt exchanges glances.
"He's right," Matt said, raising his eyebrows. "We need help outside of the agency."
Nick understood the connotation. "I know. Walt suggested the same thing."
"Then why not call him?"
Nick stuck his finger into the bullet hole Matt left in the drywall. "I tried. He's out of the country. I'm not sure he has cell coverage."
Matt shrugged. "All he'd have to do is make a few calls. He could get us information."
Nick looked at the expression on Matt's and Stevie's faces, wanting him to contact his cousin Tommy like it was a call to Batman.
"Relax," Nick said. "He's in Africa somewhere. I'll find a way to get him a message. In the meantime, let's find another way to get Garza."
In the corner of his eye, Nick could see Chapin wordlessly shaking his head, as if to himself. "You have no idea," he whispered.
Nick looked up at Matt. "Have Decker call in three random agents."
Matt cocked his head. "Why?"
"Because if there really are any other moles I want to know about it," Nick said. Then he looked at the mess of flesh sitting quietly on the floor. The man who had Ricky and Jim killed. "Besides, if there are others, they'll report to Garza that the entire building was interviewed and it won't arouse any suspicion toward this asshole."
"What do we do with him?" Matt asked.
Nick came to his feet and patted Matt's shoulder. "First, we get his daughter back."
The basement of the FBI's Baltimore field office housed the most sophisticated War Room in the nation, which required an iris scan and a short elevator ride to gain access. The FBI's information technicians worked long hours, so to avoid disorientation the walls were dotted with recessed TV monitors in the shape and position where windows would normally be placed. The monitors displayed the security images from the perimeter of the building with such clarity it felt like you were looking directly outside. Even the ceiling portrayed images of the actual sky above so the brain was fooled into believing it was in a ground floor office instead of fifty feet underground.
The perimeter of the room was lined with computer stations where techs would decipher data they'd received from the field and analyze their level of validity, then their level of threat. More than a third of the staff there were multilingual and many more were pure interpreters.
A weekly department head meeting was held there strictly for discussion of terrorist threats on US soil. Even though it was Walt Jackson's home office, he was there early to mitigate any animosity between his boss, FBI Director Louis Dutton, and CIA Director Ken Morris.
Dutton and Morris sat across the round table in the center of the room, pretending to be occupied on their tablet computers, while Walt and Defense Secretary Martin Riggs waited for the final member of the group to arrive.
Riggs was an ex-Marine with little patience for politics and seemed to sense the tension around the table. He waved a finger between Dutton and Morris and said, "You two know each other?"
Walt said nothing, while Dutton and Morris maintained their fascination with their tablets. The elevator chimed and out stepped Secretary of State, Samuel Fisk. He was a large man with a slow methodical gait. He held a plastic cup full of trail mix and placed it on the table as he took his seat next to Walt.
Fisk patted Walt's arm. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah," Walt said, lamenting the loss of two of his men. "Me too."
Fisk popped a handful of trail mix in his mouth and looked around the table. "Are we ready?"
Morris and Dutton both shoved their tablets aside and nodded.
Fisk looked at the CIA Director first. "Ken, what's going on with Templeton in Cairo? I thought that was taken care of?"
"It is," Morris said.
"Then why am I getting e-mails from Interpol stating he's still able to recruit as a detainee?"
"Recruiting is a strong word," Morris said. "He's been able to send messages through a courier acting as his attorney. We've got it under control."
Fisk seemed satisfied, then roamed the table until his eyes landed on Walt. "What's going on with the border? How did Garza get to our men?"
Walt glanced at Morris briefly before he said, "There was a mole in our Homeland Security division. We figured out who it was, but apparently there's been more penetration than we'd anticipated." He looked at Morris. "We could use a little help."
Fisk swiveled his head back and forth between Walt and Morris. "Is there a problem guys?"
FBI Director Louis Dutton glared across the table. "Apparently there's a plant inside the Mexican border, yet we're not able to use him because we're not receiving any data."
Fisk raised his eyebrows. "Ken, what's the deal?"
Morris seemed prepared for that and didn't take the bait. "We've contracted with a private firm to infiltrate Garza's circle. Apparently, the operative has made contact with Garza and has actually been inside the compound. That's as much as we know."
Fisk looked at Dutton who gave him a "see what I mean?" expression. The Secretary of State dipped his large fingers into the plastic cup and came out with some nuts and raisins. He placed them in his mouth and chewed with a thoughtful stare.
"Do you know who this plant is?" Fisk asked.
Morris remained stoic. "I'm not jeopardizing this operation, Sam. There's too much at stake. Besides," Morris looked down at his hands, "he's missed a couple of scheduled communications."
"So what does that mean?" Fisk asked.
"It means he's either dead or worse," Walt finished for him.
"Worse?" Fisk squinted.
Walt let Morris take that one. The CIA Director tapped a finger on the table.
"He may have turned," Morris said, with a disgusted tone.
Fisk rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Boy, you guys have all kinds of good news for me, don't you?"
"It gets worse," Morris said, taking in everyone at the table. His subdued demeanor made Walt's mouth dry. He poured a glass of water from the pitcher in front of him.
"Our intelligence has confirmed the transport of a dirty bomb to within a mile of the Arizona border," Morris said.
Fisk reached for more trail mix, then stopped mid-dip. "What?"
"Yes," Morris seemed to take it head on. "It's true."
Fisk looked at Walt and must've caught him nodding. He pointed to Walt. "You knew about this?"
"Yes," Walt said, and Morris couldn't keep the surprised look from his face.
Fisk seemed to notice the same thing. "Ken," Fisk said, "did you know Walt was aware of this?"
Morris looked dejected. "No."
Fisk looked at Walt. "Did you know Ken knew about this?"
Walt shook his head.
Fisk leaned over the table and craned his neck. "Are you telling me, both of you knew about a nuclear threat and neither of you spoke to each other about it?"
Walt pursed his lips, but said nothing. Morris kept up his fascination with his hands.
Martin Riggs had been listening intently to the proceedings, but his laconic personality kept him from entering the discussion. He'd always found a way to utilize the smallest amount of words to accomplish his thought.
"After Navy SEAL Team Six took care of Osama bin Laden," Riggs said, "the Navy's forecasted budget was increased by thirty-two percent."
Riggs said it matter-of-factly, as if reciting a baseball player's batting average. There was no accusatory tone. Just the facts.
Fisk stopped. His face tightened and his hands clenched into fists. "Are you shitting me?" Fisk glared at Ken Morris, then Louis Dutton, then Walt. His mouth curled up into a nasty scowl. "Is this what we've become?" he asked. "Keeping intelligence from each other to gain budgetary dollars?"
"It's more complicated than that, Sam," Morris said.
Fisk ignored Morris. He looked to his left with disappointment on his face. "Walt?"
Walt took a breath. "Sam, if you saw the intel which came across my desk every day, you'd never leave your house. The enemy uses diversion and disinformation as a tactic to keep us occupied. Agents Hernandez and Braden were on the verge of verifying the legitimacy of this lead when they were ambushed. They'd been imbedded in one of Antonio Garza's crews for six months before their murder. Did I know for certain the threat was legit? No. But we'll find out."
"And that's why Dennis isn't here?" Fisk said, commented on the absence of the Director of Homeland Security.
"We can't afford any more leaks," Riggs said. "The smaller the circle, the less chance for an ambush."
Fisk turned toward the CIA Director. "Ken?"
Morris drummed his fingers on the table waiting his turn. He seemed to consider his words. "Well, I agree with Walt. We'd heard through our Mid-East operatives there was a delivery coming into Mexico so we contracted with a private firm which already had active contacts within the cartels. They were doling out information sparingly as we negotiated terms for payment."
"You mean we were paying them for information?"
"And how far along did we get?"
"Like I said, we were in negotiation-"
Morris looked to Martin Riggs for help and the Defense Secretary nodded.
"Yes," Riggs said. "Sometimes these firms will become aware of a huge source of
information and raise the price. Like paying someone to mine for copper, then they strike gold and want to renegotiate."
"Only we can't see the gold until we pay them," Morris finished for him. "We have to take this lead seriously though. There's too much buzz out there."
"How much money are these guys asking for?"
"Two million," Morris said.
"And?" Fisk held out his open hands and looked at Riggs.
The Defense Secretary shrugged. "That's more money than we had available for this operation. It puts us in a position to bring it to a Senate Committee for approval." Then Riggs gave Fisk a curious expression. He seemed to be looking for a tacit answer to an unasked question.
Fisk gazed around the table at the group of department heads staring at him. "You want me to ask the President if we can use black ops money to fund this thing?"
Everyone knew Fisk was the second most powerful man in the world. He'd grown up childhood friends with President Merrick and had gained Merrick's confidence almost to a fault. Merrick had allowed Fisk to run foreign affairs on his own terms, even against Merrick's own policies, but Fisk had never let him down.
Fisk sighed. "Okay, who's our enemy here? And how are we going to proceed?"
"They're a group of militants out of Syria," Walt said. "Former members of Hamas who were displeased with the passive direction the organization was headed. They want to make a name for themselves and this seems to be the quickest route."
Fisk tapped a fist over his mouth. "Who do we have down there right now?"
"Nick and Matt are running the operation," Walt said.
Fisk blew out a breath. "Thank goodness." He glanced around the table. "You need to understand something. President Salcido is in a tough battle for reelection down there. We've spent years on an agreement to work with the Mexican Army on their side of the border. We could have access to information we've never been able to see before. But if Salcido loses the election and Rodriguez takes over . . . well, he's practically owned by the cartels."
Fisk examined his audience as if to determine how much further he needed to go. "So if we step one foot inside their border to attack anyone, even a known assassin-it will give Rodriguez all the ammunition he would need to show how Salcido is owned by the US. And we can't afford for that to happen."
Fisk made eye contact with each department head. "Understood?"
Walt waited until Fisk was finished before he said, "I'm not sure we can wait for this shipment to cross the border, Sam."
Fisk maintained an even stare. "Let me rephrase this," he said. "We cannot be caught in Mexico doing anything antagonistic, period. If someone crosses that border, they may as well be on the moon. We can't help them."
That's when Walt realized they were on their own. His team would have to operate without support from any other agency or department. Politics had been a dangerous component of his job, but now he was practically given orders to confiscate a nuclear weapon inside another country while offering the executive branch complete deniability.
"Don't worry," Walt said. "No one will get caught."
... continued ...