FEEL THE HEAT - Book No. 4 - "Black Ops Inc. "
B.J. Chase had worn her black tank top and khaki shorts too many hours to count in the Venezuelan climate where the heat and humidity were often measured in terms of ripe, riper and ‘for God’s sake, take a shower’.
Restless and on edge, she tapped her thumbs on the steering wheel of a rusted out red Jeep Cherokee, circa 1990, feeling a trail of perspiration trickle down her back. No time to worry about her deodorant letting her down now. Weeks of surveillance, back alley connections and righteous fieldwork were finally going to pay off. The deal was going down and it was going down tonight, right here on this dark, garbage littered back alley in Caracas.
“Provided Eduardo actually shows up,” B.J. reminded herself under her breath.
Oh, yeah … and she had to get out of here alive once he did.
Somewhere in the distance, the feral snarls of a cat fight rose above the rough idle of the Jeep’s motor. The driver’s seat creaked and groaned when she shifted behind the wheel. She’d bought the Jeep at a used car lot three weeks ago when she and three other DIA agents had first arrived in Caracas. The seat was sprung; the fenders were rusted out. Some genius had hacked off the top at some point and done a sloppy job of welding a roll bar to the frame. A spider web of cracks burst away from a bullet hole on the passenger side windshield. Beneath the pitted hood, the engine knocked like a Jehovah Witness rapping on a nonbeliever’s door but the guys in the motor pool at the U.S. Embassy had done a little tinkering and pronounced it sound. A luxury ride, it was not. B.J. didn’t need luxury. She needed speed and reliability and that’s what the Jeep would give her if this meet went sour and she had to burn rubber out of here.
She checked her watch, frowned. It was nearly three a.m. Eduardo was late.
“Where the hell is he?” she muttered into the commo mike hidden in the center of the Celtic cross that nestled in the dampness between her breasts.
“Cool your jets.” Maynard’s voice whispered sharply in her earpiece.
Like Hogan and Collins, Maynard wasn’t exactly thrilled that this was her show. They were older, had more seniority and were openly unimpressed with her military background, her education and the fact that she’d spearheaded this DIA operation from its inception back in DC nearly six months ago.
Nope, the boys didn’t like that she’d drawn team leader assignment. That was fine. They didn’t have to like it, just like they didn’t have to be impressed. They just had to do their job, which was guard her back. And regardless of the crude message implied by the set of brass balls that had mysteriously appeared on her desk the day after her immediate supervisor, Dale Sherwood, had put her in charge, she knew they would do it.
She tamped down her impatience then made herself draw a settling breath. She wished she had a piece of chocolate. Chocolate always calmed her but chocolate, in this heat, was off the table. So was breathing easy.
She felt more jumpy by the minute. Eduardo had set up this meet. He’d told her to come alone. Yeah, right. The three other DIA officers lurked in the shadows with a little insurance in the form of M-4’s with night scopes. She had, however, followed Eduardo’s instructions to park, flick the headlights three times, then kill them. Now she waited in the dark, heat pulsing from the potholed alley, sweat trickling between her shoulder blades and her breasts and soaking her shirt while her heart tripped at double time.
She had to believe he would show. Men like him – parasites without conscience or scruples – would sell out their own mothers for a helluva lot less than the $20K she’d already paid him for partial information. No way was Eduardo going to miss out on the other half of his forty grand that she would trade him tonight for the rest of the info he’d promised to deliver.
Yet when she searched the dark ahead of her all she could see were shadows. The alley was narrow and winding, flanked on both sides by an endless row of three and four story adobe and brick buildings. Some, she assumed, housed businesses, some residences. All but one, were dark. A pale light spilled out of a first story window several yards ahead of her. It was the only light other than the dim glow of the pale green gauges on the Jeep’s dashboard.
She lifted damp blond hair off her neck and swiped at the perspiration coating her nape. Her hair and humidity were not friends. Even though she’d used a scrunchie to wrestle the unruly mass of it into a tail, some of the thick, springy curls had escaped around her face.
“Heads up.” Hogan’s voice sounded in her earpiece. “There’s movement, your twelve o’clock.”
All of her senses slammed into overdrive. It was show time. They were finally going to get what they’d come for. Last March a cache of controversial computer files had been recovered in Colombia tying Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez to FARC – the communist rebel group intent on ousting the U.S.-friendly Colombian government from power. The treasure trove – found on a dead guerrilla leader's laptop during a military raid – had been just the tip of the iceberg. Since then, B.J. had been setting things in motion, ferreting out contacts, paring down informants and finally scoring tonight’s meet with Eduardo of no last name. He was supposed to provide enough additional Intel to make it possible for the US to ratchet up the pressure on Venezuela to stop aiding FARC without having to impose sanctions on one of America’s most important oil suppliers.
“Come on, come on,” she muttered under her breath, then damn near jumped out of her skin when she heard the sound of footsteps on the gritty pavement.
A man appeared out of the shadows: Eduardo. Short, swarthy, black hair hanging in a long braid down the middle of his back, a gold hoop in his left ear. If there was a conscience or a heart behind his cold hard eyes, both were buried so deep neither had seen the light of day in a very long while.
Now it got dicey. This is what she got paid the little bucks to do.
Her Glock 19 pressed against her right kidney where she’d tucked it into the waistband of her khaki shorts. The weight and pressure were both comforting and reassuring. So was the sawed-off 12 gauge shotgun lying lengthwise at her feet on the floor of the Jeep, stock facing the driver’s door.
She pulled up on the door handle, put her shoulder into it and pushed. The rusted hinges squawked but finally swung open. Her sandaled foot hit the pocked pavement. Mindful of both the position of the shotgun and her distance from it, she left the door open. “I was beginning to think you weren’t going to sho—“
The distinctive metallic click of a safety on an AK-47 assault rifle had her freezing mid-sentence. Her heart rate ratcheted up to triple time as Eduardo stopped abruptly about three yards in front of her, slowly lifting his hands above his head.
A man dressed in a black wife beater and dark cammo cargo pants and wielding the AK stepped out from behind him. He gestured with the business end of the rifle for her to raise her hands too. “Up high. Let’s see ‘em, cara.”
The look on Eduardo’s face told her that he was as surprised as she was. And that they were both as good as dead if she didn’t do what she was told.
She didn’t want to be dead.
Stall, she thought, as adrenaline zipped through her blood like rocket fuel. She needed to make something happen until her back up took charge of the situation.
Very slowly, she lifted her hands, all the while inching closer to the open door of the jeep and the shotgun that lay just out of reach on the floor.
Where were they--?
Oh, God. Her runaway heart rate plummeted when she saw Maynard, Hogan and Collins suddenly illuminated by the beams of three powerful mag lights and marching slowly toward her.
Their hands were linked on top of their heads. Three men walking behind them pointed assault rifles at their backs, prodding them forward. The lot of them looked ready to chew nails. They were pissed and embarrassed that they’d been caught with their pants down. Join the club.
What kind of men were they dealing with that they could get the drop on experienced DIA field officers? Men, she quickly decided, who had either known they were coming, or men who had the skills the DIA officers lacked.
She cut a cautious glance toward the Jeep. Knew that if she was going to make a move, it had to be now.
She dove toward the 12 gauge.
The man with the AK struck like a viper. He grabbed her arm, yanked her away from the door then slammed her up against the vehicle.
“Not smart.” He pinned her against the Jeep with the weight of his body. “Now I’ll tell you again. Keep your hands where I can see them. That way no one gets hurt.”
And he could hurt her, she had no doubt about that. Hell, he could have killed her by now she thought as he turned Eduardo over to one of his men. One bullet. Close range. Clean and simple.
For whatever reason, she was still fit and fine. The others were fine too. Which gave her reason to hope that they still had a prayer of getting out of this alive. To do that, she had to play heads up ball which meant she had to work through the adrenaline rush that mixed with fear and made her shaky, and quickly assess her adversary.
This close, it wasn’t that difficult. The face that met hers, mere inches away was not a face she would expect to meet in a dark alley on the wrong side of a mission that was rapidly heading south. Wholesome was the word that came to mind. Altar boy angelic – if one could overlook the assault rifle.
The tattoo she’d caught a glimpse of on his upper arm appeared to be of a cross of some sort that did not, however, put her in mind of altars or boys. Neither did the gold crucifix that hung from his neck and lay against a broad chest so smooth it could have been waxed.
His eyes were dark, almost black, like the hair that he wore cut military close. His skin was caramel toned, his face clean-shaven and flawless but for a small, triangular scar that rode at the left corner of a full, sensuous mouth. She was used to assessing and cataloguing adversaries on the fly. What she wasn’t used to was thinking of the enemy in terms of disarmingly handsome – or that she would be ultra sensitive to the fact that he was plastered so tightly against her she could feel the heat radiating off his body like a pulse.
He wasn’t a big man – maybe five nine, five ten – but the body pressed against hers was as lean and hard as the Jeep at her back. The steely grip on her arm was capable of inflicting pain – yet he only used it to control her.
Something about him made her think he’d spent some time in the States. He was clean, his bearing disciplined and practiced. He knew exactly what he was doing, where his men were and how to take control. Situational awareness. Like a soldier. Like a merc, she thought and knew that alive or not, they were still in deep trouble.
Or worse, he could be on Chavez’s payroll – possibly police, maybe even paramilitary. Chavez wouldn’t take kindly to Eduardo passing along secret government information and would sure as hell want to stop the transaction.
But she knew how Chavez worked. If these were his men, she’d be bleeding out in the gutter by now. No questions asked.
So no, this detail had not been sent by Chavez. So … CIA maybe? This guy had the look – they all did – the skills and the ‘no one can touch me’ attitude. And if not CIA, then a close equivalent. Bad asses with license to kill, thrill and wreak havoc wherever they decided havoc needed to be wreaked.
Which brought her back to the immediate problem. If they were CIA then someone, somewhere had screwed up royally because no way should one government agency interfere with another’s sting. Either way, his guns were still just as big and just as bad and she was still in just as much trouble because in her experience Spooks didn’t care about rules or diplomacy.
“Let’s back away from the Jeep, okay, querida? Easy now,” he warned in a voice that was as sultry as the night and lightly laced with a Spanish accent. Even though he spoke softly, however, there was no mistaking the order or the threat as he pressed the nose of the AK against her rib cage and with a firm grip on her upper arm, guided her away from the Jeep and, thankfully, several inches away from him.
He peered over the open driver’s side door then smiled when he spotted the shotgun. “Cute gun,” he said, like he was complimenting her wardrobe – which was feeling mighty damn inadequate when his dark gaze raked her body up and down before he shouldered around her and plucked the shotgun off the floor.
With hardly a backward glance, he tossed the gun to one of his men then leaned in close and started patting her down.
She gritted her teeth, resigned to suffer pain and humiliation and rough hands. He surprised her again when he tugged her Glock out her waistband then made quick and painless work of searching her.
“I do like a woman who knows her weapons.” He glanced from the pistol to her face, smiled again as he pulled the earpiece out of her ear and tossed it away. “You have any other surprises, mi chica bonita?”
Smooth. Smooth and smug. And while she was both surprised and grateful that he hadn’t manhandled her, she could do without the condescending attitude.
“I’m not your pretty girl.”
His smile faded. “But you are my pretty problem. And you’re a complication I don’t have time for. Come on, let’s go.”
“Go where?” She put on the skids when he urged her forward.
He grunted out something that might have passed for a laugh as his men bound Maynard’s, Hogan’s, Collins’s and Eduardo’s hands behind their backs with flex cuffs. “You don’t get to ask questions. You just get to do as you’re told.”
When he started hauling her down the alley toward his men, she dug in her heels and latched on to the Jeep’s roll bar in a death grip. “I’m not going anywhere.”
He expelled a weary breath. “You don’t get to call the shots, either. Now I said, let’s go.” He didn’t mess around this time. He jerked her hard, breaking her hold.
“Look,” she reasoned, fighting him every step. “You need to let us go. You’ve got to know we’re all American citizens.”
He stopped, leaned in close and growled in her ear. “That’s not something you want to broadcast in this part of the city. But since you’re so proud of the fact, why don’t you tell me what four Americans are doing here this time of night?”
When their eyes met this time, a shocking heat arced between them that transcended the hottest South American night.
Holy God. Where had that come from? Shaken, she forced herself to hold his gaze, told herself it was only anger and adrenaline that had her heartbeat revving and every self-preservation instinct she possessed warning her to look away.
“We’re with the USDA. On an agricultural exchange program,” she lied like the good DIA officer she was, launching into the cover story they’d developed in the event something like this happened. She knew the cover was lame but it was all she had. Three veteran DIA officers with assault rifles and high tech commo equipment were supposed to have insured she wouldn’t need to use it.
He looked at her like she’d grown two heads, then barked out a laugh. “USDA officials with American military issue M-4’s? I don’t think so. Wanna try again?”
“Check my pocket.” Anything to buy time, stall, minimize their profile until they could either figure out how to get away or stay alive until the Intelligence Officer at the Embassy figured out they were in trouble and sent a team to find them. “My credentials are in there.”
“I’m sure they are. But fake ID’s are a dime a dozen.” His warm breath fanned her nape as he tugged her hands behind her back and secured her wrists with the flex cuffs one of his men had tossed him. “I’ve got a hundred of ‘em. Who would you like me to be? The Welcome Wagon? Scooby Do? Or maybe you’d like me to be Batman. You choose. It’ll be fun.”
Oh, yeah. He’d definitely spent time in the States. The way he carried himself may be all sexy Latino swagger and yeah, he spoke with a Spanish accent but this guy’s attitude and jargon were definitely a product of the American culture.
His trip tightened on her arm and he forced her down the alley and away from the Jeep.
“Where are you taking us?”
“Some place where I can minimize the problem you’re making for me.”
His fingers still in a viselike grip around her upper arm, he guided her a couple of blocks then around a corner where two black vans sat under the beam of a streetlight so pale it was almost nonexistent. One of the men pulled a hood over Eduardo’s face then shoved him into the rear vehicle. Then they roughly tugged black hoods over Maynard, Hogan and Collins then guided them none too gently into the other van.
Oh, God. She was next. Her captor pushed her in the same direction; the gaping darkness inside the open door had her heart slamming. She put on the brakes again. She wasn’t going to give up that easily. She was losing her mole and the information she’d worked months to uncover. She had no idea what they planned to do with them – beatings, rape, torture …
She blocked the images from her mine. This was not going to end here. She wasn’t going to let it. She’d worked too hard, Eduardo mattered too much.
“You really need to let us go,” she tried one last time.
“Be a good girl and that might happen.”
Then he pulled a hood down over her head.
“You’re making me very tired, cara,” Raphael Mendoza grumbled as the wriggling blond American pulled against his hold.
He so did not have the patience for this.
“So much for a quick in and out,” Luke Colter – aka Doc Holliday – sputtered as he headed for the driver’s door.
Yeah, Rafe thought. That wasn’t happening. This whole Eduardo sting was making him weary. Wait until Nate Black, his boss at Black Ops, Inc., found out that Uncle had a tag team match going on with the Venezuelan gangster. And wait until little Miss Sunshine here went home empty handed. The fur was gonna fly on Capitol Hill because he had no doubt that she and her boys had been sent by some lower level spy master bent on making a name for himself through his agency staff.
“You’re making a big mistake,” she advised him again, her words muffled beneath the hood as she shoved against his chest.
“Won’t be the first one,” he grumbled and without another word, hauled her up against him and lifted her off her feet.
She was stronger than she looked. Softer too, not that he had the time to appreciate either discovery.
“In you go.” He shoved her inside with her three amigos. Christ. With those three guarding her back, it was a wonder she wasn’t dead already. “Now behave.”
“Not likely,” she sputtered, which made him smile. Lord knew why. He was hot. He was tired. He was pissed.
But she was a fighter and he just had to like that.
Doc was already settled behind the wheel when Rafe slid into the van’s shotgun seat. “We good to go yet?”
“Tell me one thing about this that’s good,” Rafe muttered as Doc stepped on the gas. What a goatfuck.
He glanced in the rearview mirror to see the four of them packed into the back of the van like sardines, their heads down, the black hoods covering their faces and blocking their vision. Goldilocks had scooted around until she sat with her back against a sidewall. USDA. That was their cover? He let out a deep breath, shook his head and wondered what master mind had dreamed that up.
“So,” he said because he couldn’t contain his curiosity, “since we’re all friends now, why don’t you tell me what you’re really doing here?”
“Already did,” she insisted, sticking with the ridiculous cover story.
Doc grinned at him as they barreled down a series of back streets.
“Wha’d ya think, Choirboy? Thumbscrews or straight to beheading?”
“Both tempting,” Rafe said with a weary grunt. “I really don’t care – as long as we start with the woman.”
Doc chuckled. “You always want to start with a woman.”
Rafe caught her quick intake of breath. Awe, hell. He’d gone and scared her again.
“Relax, querida. Your pretty neck isn’t in any danger. Neither are your thumbs. We’ll drop you off safe and sound at the U.S. Embassy. You can lick your wounds, report to whatever alphabet agency sent you down here that you were ambushed by big bad bandito types and everyone goes home happy.”
Happy. Right. He was so damn happy he could spit nails.
“If you’re not going to kill us,” her voice came out of the back of the van, “then why the guns?”
“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” Doc, with his usual droll sense of humor, pointed out with mock gravity. “And your guys were a little too trigger happy for comfort. We like it better when we’re the ones saying’ stick ‘em up. Works out better for us that way.”
“Okay, who the hell are you guys?” she demanded. “And what do you want with Eduardo?”
Spitfire. Under other circumstances Rafe might have appreciated her grit. And the sweet little body and all that wild curly blond hair. Other circumstances being she wasn’t mucking up an op that had taken him and the BOIs nine months to set up.
He twisted around, scowled and decided what the hell. He’d succeeded in scaring her. That’s what he’d wanted to do. No point overplaying his hand. He tugged off her hood.
She blinked like a little bird, trying to get her pupils to adjust to the dim interior of the van.
“So it’s Eduardo, is it? You’re on a first name basis with that lowlife? Makes a man wonder where your interest in the local agriculture really lies. Not a lot of pig farms in Caracas last I looked. Lotta coca farms nearby, though. That what your agricultural exchange program’s about? You swapping cash for cocaine, cara?”
At least baiting her was marginally entertaining. So was watching her tug on the flex cuffs as if she actually thought she could wriggle free.
“Are you going to tell me who you’re working for?” she shot back. Snapping blue eyes, full of challenge, met his.
“I believe I asked you first.”
She glared at him.
Which made him smile as he turned face forward in the shotgun seat again. Yeah, she was definitely entertaining. “Just be glad it was us who found you and not Chavez’s hit squad,” he said finally. “Best to leave it at that.”
“What do you want with Eduardo?”
He glanced in the rearview mirror, met her eyes. “Do you know the meaning of the term ‘broken record’?”
“There’s a simple fix for that. Answer my questions.”
That wasn’t going to happen. “Eduardo is a very bad man. A lot of people want him – dead or alive. So I’ll repeat. You should be very glad it was us who intervened tonight.”
“We’re taking him in,” she announced with a conviction generally reserved for someone holding the upper hand.
Doc chuckled. “Woman’s got spunk. Distorted sense of reality, but spunk just the same.”
“Sorry, cara.” Like hell he was. “Eduardo is ours.”
“You have no idea what your interference disrupted,” she informed him, getting steamed all over again.
“I have no idea? I have no idea?” Fun and games were over. He twisted in the seat again so he could look her in the eye. “You and your three stooges here have managed to throw a wrench the size of a tank into an operation that took us months to set up. So don’t tell me what my interference disrupted. You stumbled into a hornet’s nest, querido. Now sit back and button it or you could still get stung.”
The fierce look in her eyes relayed more than anger. “A sanctioned U.S. government operation trumps whatever black op you’ve got going on. I repeat. We are taking Eduardo in.”
He made a sound of disbelief. “Jesus, woman. What part of you’re tied up and we’ve got the guns don’t you understand?”
The U.S. Embassy complex came into view just then. Thank God. He’d finally be rid of her and the rest of her motley crew and he and the BOI’s would be on their way with Eduardo in tow.
Or they would have been if she hadn’t fired a rocket that shot straight to the heart of the matter.
“What part of DIA officer under direct orders from the Department of Defense don’t you understand?”
He went utterly still. Silence ticked like a bomb then blew sky high.
Beside him Holliday muttered a low, weary, “I don’t fricking believe this.”
Defense Intelligence Agency? Department of Defense? Sonofabitch.
He was fucked … and without so much as a kiss from a blond bombshell with Goldilocks curls.
Simon and Schuster