Five Gold-Smuggling Rings
Read the Excerpt
A Case for Christmas
I arrived at the Dallas Immigration and Customs Enforcement office promptly at 9:03 a.m. Monday morning. Problem was, the weekly office-wide powwow began at nine. Guess I shouldn’t have stayed up late watching that Walking Dead marathon.
After ditching my purse in my office and grabbing the flyers for the holiday party I’d coordinated, I sneaked in the door of the crowded conference room. My boss, Vince Beldaccio, narrowed his eyes at me in censure but continued speaking.
“Remember, folks,” Beldaccio barked, “Christmas Eve is not a federal holiday. If you want the day off, you have to put in for vacation.”
Uncle Sam could be such a party pooper.
As our boss updated the group on pending cases, I took a place along the back wall next to Agent Javier Carrasco. My coworker turned his gaze on me and damned if I didn’t feel like a willing strawberry being dipped in the fondue of his molten-chocolate eyes. Yummm . . .
Agent Carrasco, or “Rasco,” as he was known about the office, was a tough agent, with five years under his belt. He was as tall as me, his frame trimmed with lean muscle. His dark hair was slicked back with gel. He wore faded jeans, black biker boots, and a black leather jacket with more studs than the all-male revue at Chippendales. Rasco’s specialty was intercepting narcotics making their way up from Mexico. Thus, the badass outfit. He’d transferred to the Dallas office from Tucson two months ago.
When Beldaccio had first introduced Javier at a staff meeting, every female in the room exploded in a simultaneous orgasm. As I’d since learned, though, while Rasco had sex appeal out the wazoo, his personality could use an upgrade. He was gruff, stingy with his words, impenetrable. A loner obsessed with his job.
The polar opposite of Rasco would be me. I was the office sweetheart, the beloved coworker who brought donuts on Fridays, remembered everyone’s birthday with a card and balloons, and was always willing to help others with grunt work. While I’d never seen Rasco crack a smile, I wore a perpetual grin. You might think that odd for a federal agent, but once I’d hit six one and 160 pounds at the age of fourteen, I realized if I didn’t smile I scared people, like some type of big-boned, blond-haired she-monster. Needless to say, my adolescence left something to be desired.
After a few more minutes of yammering about agents filing late reports (guilty), running personal errands while on duty (guilty, but it was an emergency stop for a half-price purse sale), and misusing our government computers to watch silly cat videos on YouTube (guilty times ten—those cats are a riot!), our boss asked if there were any questions. My hand shot into the air like an eager schoolgirl with the right answer to a history question. The War of 1812!
Beldaccio lifted his chin to indicate me. “Agent Dietrich?”
I scurried to the front of the room and waved the flyers like a cheerleader shaking her pom-poms. “Don’t forget the holiday party a week from Friday!”
I handed stacks of flyers to the people on the front row so they could pass them back to the others. The flyers read
Whether it’s dreidels, candles, or mistletoe,
Hanukah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas,
Don’t miss the ICE holiday party!!!
5:30 Friday, December 21, at the Ginger Man!!!
Bring your holiday spirit and a white elephant gift!!!
I’d gone overboard with the exclamation points, but who could blame me? This was the most wonderful time of the year. Presents, sugar cookies, more presents, pumpkin pie, more presents . . . What’s not to like?
When my flyers had made their way around the room, with Rasco passing them along but not taking one himself (Grinch!), Beldaccio wrapped things up with a clap of his hands. “Back to work, folks. Criminals don’t arrest themselves.”
Such wisdom and eloquence. Easy to see why he was in charge, huh?
My coworkers and I filed out of the room, turning right or left depending on the location of our digs. My office was at the end of the hall to the left, just before the supply closet and across from the restrooms. I spent my days listening to toilets flush and people rustling around for sticky notes or paper clips. Such is the life of a rookie.
I’d been with ICE six months. Before joining the feds, I’d spent five years as a civil investigator for the Texas Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Department. My experience at the state level taught me how to dig for clues, conduct interviews, and peck away at a suspect’s defense until it crumbled into dust. But I’d eventually learned all I could, and I wanted to take my career a step farther. Also, I wanted a shiny badge and a gun. What girl doesn’t yearn for a little bling? Especially bling that goes bang!
I was still in training at ICE, assisting other agents with their caseloads. With any luck, someday soon Beldaccio would deem me ready for a case of my own. It didn’t have to be a big one. A little one against an elderly Chinese grandmother who smuggled Louis Vuitton knockoffs in from Shanghai would suffice. Just something I could call my own, call the shots on, and take credit for. Nothing wrong with a little ambition, right?
Back in my office, I plopped down in my chair, logged on to my computer, and pulled up my e-mail. Three new messages awaited me.
At the top of my inbox was an e-mail from Beldaccio’s secretary, Nancy, reminding me to turn in my report on a recent news-making bust of an Indonesian man importing counterfeit Levi’s jeans. Paperwork. Uck. Writing reports was the least interesting part of our jobs. It was far more fun to be out in the field, performing surveillance, questioning suspects, or executing an arrest. That particular bust had been a blast. The agency had received a tip the target was selling fake jeans at Dallas Market Hall. Beldaccio assigned me to assist a male agent with the investigation. When we approached the suspect he took off running, grabbing a fire extinguisher from the wall and spraying it at us. My coworker lost his footing in the foam, but I managed to wrangle the device from the suspect and turn the improvised weapon on him. By the time I was done the guy looked like a frosted wedding cake. Several people caught the takedown on their cell phones and shared it online and with the news media, who’d featured the footage on the six o’clock news. My fifteen minutes of fame.
The second e-mail was from a fellow agent asking for a file I’d been reviewing. Hmm. I dug through the pile on my desk. Ah. There it is. I attached a routing slip and stuck the file in my outbox for the mail clerk.
I turned back to my computer, puzzled. I didn’t recognize the sender of the third e-mail. The address sounded like one a mail-order bride might use: Kinshasafirstname.lastname@example.org. Whuh . . . ?
Knowing the server would’ve screened out infected communications, I opened the message.
Agent Angelika Dietrich,
I must speak with you. Meet me in the downtown Neiman Marcus evening-wear department dressing room tomorrow at 2:30.
A Woman Who Wants to Do Right
I had no idea what to make of the message. It could be a ruse, sent by someone I’d taken down in a previous case. I’d made fools of more than one suspect who’d attempted to flee only to find himself tackled and restrained by yours truly. Not to brag, but I hadn’t been the state high school shot-put and pole-vault champ three years in a row for nothing. Maybe the sender of the e-mail was leading me into a trap. But who would plan an ambush at Neiman’s? It was too much for me to wrap my mind around.
I printed out a copy of the message and headed to my boss’s office. I stopped in the doorway when I realized Beldaccio wasn’t alone. He leaned back in his chair with his arms folded across his chest in his heavy-thinking pose. He waved me into the room.
Rasco sat in a wing chair, leaning forward, his face pensive. He glanced my way, irritation flickering across his face before he turned back to our boss. “Guerra’s nervous. He plans to move the entire operation, including his stash.”
“When is this going down?” Beldaccio asked.
“Tomorrow evening,” Rasco replied in his smooth-as-satin, Spanish-tinged voice. Beldaccio exhaled sharply. “Take plenty of ammo and watch your back.” My boss turned his attention to me now. “Whaddya need, Dietrich?”
I handed him the paper. “I received this strange e-mail this morning.”
He read it over. “Any idea who this Kinshasa Cutie is?”
Rasco looked from me to our boss. “Kinshasa’s the capital of the DRC.”
“DRC?” I wasn’t familiar with the abbreviation.
“The Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Rasco clarified.
Should’ve paid more attention in high school geography.
Beldaccio rubbed his chin before handing the printout to Rasco. “What do you make of this?”
Rasco read it over. “Unclear. It could be an informant stepping forward. Or it could be someone trying to snare Agent Dietrich.”
Beldaccio looked up as if juggling the ideas in his head before turning his eyes back to Rasco. “You’ve got good instincts. What should we do?”
“I’d send her in,” Rasco said, “but with cover.”
Beldaccio nodded. “Why don’t you go with her? You could teach her a thing or two.”
Oh, I bet he could teach me all kinds of things, many of which would have nothing to do with our jobs as ICE agents. My body temperature soared at the thought.
Evidently Rasco was less excited about the prospect of teaming up with me than I was about teaming up with him. He frowned. “Babysitting a rookie? You sure that’s the best use of my time?”
Babysitting? This guy better watch it or he’d find me ripping off his balls and shot-putting them down the hallway. I might be a rookie, but I was a damn good agent. Hardworking. Smart. Fearless. Well, relatively fearless. That suspect with the shaved head and the teardrop tattoo beneath his eye had nearly made me wet myself, but other than that my undies had remained perfectly dry.
“She needs some training,” Beldaccio replied. “You’re one of the agency’s top operatives. Who better to teach her the ropes?”
His ego assuaged, Rasco glanced my way. “Come to my office tomorrow at one.” He skewered me with his gaze. “Don’t be late.”
Emotions battled in me as I walked back to my office. On one hand, I was excited an intriguing and possibly dangerous mission loomed on the horizon. I lived for action. On the other hand, Rasco was proving to be an absolute ass. Had I really thought his eyes looked like melted chocolate earlier? Nah. They were just everyday brown. Like an old shoe or cow manure.
At least this could be the start of a new case, one that might be mine to manage. I couldn’t think of a better Christmas present than an investigation of my own.