DANGEROUS LIAISONS: CHAPTER ONE
Only ten minutes left before the drug deal went down.
It was hard to believe. After eighteen months of undercover work and living a double life, finally the end loomed near. The drug dealers were going down today. It was impossible to get all the drugs off the streets, she knew that, but this would stop some innocent victims from overdosing like Cathy. She couldn’t save Cathy back then, but she’d spend the rest of her life trying to make up for it. Maybe it was guilt or compassion; whatever you wanted to call it, she needed to do this.
The organized crime division of the local Los Angeles Police Department had received information about new players that had moved into their city. Since they were obviously running in several states the DEA was contacted. Working together, a plan was organized and put in motion. The local DEA agent who had infiltrated the organization had ended up dead, shot in the head and his body left in an alley. DEA Agent Marcus Burton wasn’t taking any chances this time. With what his man had been able to provide before he was killed, they knew it was time to contact the FBI. He pulled some favors and got his buddy Special Agent Maxwell Stewart and his undercover team in on the case. Sierra Lancaster and her partner Colton Jameson had the highest success rate in their division. He was working on infiltrating the cartel, while she was on the outside. It was a risk splitting them up, but it had worked so far.
As she headed for the meeting spot, she thought back to when she first started at the case. They were after a drug lord only known as El Jefe, but none of their contacts or resources panned out. Then they learned that the local lieutenant, Miguel Diaz was rumored to be El Jefe’s son. Sierra spent months learning everything she could about her target. Then she arranged an accidental meeting at his favorite bar. She didn’t make it easy for him. He noticed her right away, wanted to get to know her, yet she kept him at bay until the time was right. Miguel was an easy target; he had a weakness for strong women. Sierra knew how he looked at her: a mix of intrigue and challenge. He wanted her. And that was to her advantage. Miguel Diaz was a shoot first and ask questions later kind of guy. She knew she had to be very careful. But pressure from above had her moving faster than she liked.
The potential for everything to go wrong nearly overwhelmed her. The meeting was set for a crowded park. Too many people could be harmed if something went awry. Large trees, in every shade of green, decorated the park like a painting. People took advantage of the handmade benches scattered around in the shade. As she walked, she casually looked for her backup. She passed a huge swing set where children swung on their own, or were being pushed by their parents. She noticed a couple of joggers out for a run, an elderly woman reading a book, and a couple playing cards on the grass. Her team blended into the crowd where they would remain hidden until she gave the signal.
Now she wanted to ditch the wig and have a little downtime before moving on to the next case. It would be great to finally have this case finished. She wanted to move on. For some reason, this case was causing her to have nightmares, flashbacks of a past she thought long buried. But now was not the time to be reflecting. She had a job to do.
The California sun blazed, and combined with her nerves about the impending confrontation, Sierra was already soaked in sweat. Even the slight breeze dancing through her hair didn’t ease the heat, or her tension. Instinct turned her eyes west, where she saw Miguel Diaz and Marco Romera headed in her direction.
She took a deep breath, a silent prayer gracing her coral lips, and walked towards the two men. Los Angeles was a big place where people hardly noticed their surroundings, even on a lovely spring day like this. To her delight, Miguel was carrying the dope in a black athletic bag. The thin press of his lips revealed his anger, probably because she didn’t carry the briefcase he expected. She wasn’t stupid enough to bring that amount of cash with her to have him rip her off, kill her, and leave.
The money was stashed close by in the perfect hiding place. Diaz would be arrested before he got his hands on it.
“I don’t see any money.” Marco scanned the area, not meeting her eyes.
“It’s close by. You’ll get your money soon enough. Let’s see the merchandise, boys.” She didn’t smile, this was a business transaction and she had to play it cool. As far as they knew she was an experienced middle man buyer for an out of state distributor hoping to make a solid connection. Showing excitement would get her killed, especially considering the way Miguel usually dealt with his questionable clients.
They walked over to a picnic table. All three of them checked their surroundings before Marco lifted the heavy bag onto the table with a grunt. Sierra didn’t react when she recognized one of her men, faced away from them as he fed the pigeons, and another that jogged down the trail. She opened the bag while the two men continued to make sure no one took notice of them. It contained enough cocaine to kill everyone in the park. The bags were clear plastic and contained pure white powder. It looked like fresh-fallen snow. Five million dollars’ worth of uncut cocaine would cause lots of problems if it got on the streets.
To test it, Sierra reached in her over-shoulder bag and took out an edger. With that, she sliced a small opening in one of the bags. Her long finger took a swipe of the white powdery substance and brought it to her tongue. The bitter taste made her want to gag. She wondered how someone could do this to their body. She then pulled out a small vial and dropped some of the cocaine into it. They all watched the tiny granules float like snowflakes in a water globe. From the corner of her eye she saw Miguel poke his elbow into Marco’s ribs. Sierra ignored them, but the muscles in her stomach tightened with fear.
“Uh, Ally, Miguel wants to know if after we deal, you know, if you’d like to get a drink with him.” Marco nodded towards Miguel, as a half-smile played on his lips.
Miguel stuttered and he rarely talked.
Sierra definitely wasn’t expecting that. She smiled. “Sorry, I make it a point not to date guys I do business with.”
“Y-y-your loss, baby,” Miguel said as disappointment lined his face.
She zipped the bag closed on the cocaine and was about to speak when a couple walked by. They glanced over at the three. The woman hesitated, taking a second glance at Marco. “Colton, Colton Jameson. Is that you?”
All three of them focused on the couple. Marco said, “You got the wrong person, lady. A body like yours, I’d never forget.”
“Hey, that’s my wife you’re talking to.” The man pushed himself between his wife and the trio.
Miguel didn’t like that. He pulled out his gun. “Wh-wh-what’s g-g-g-goin’ on here? Wh-who’s Colton?”
The couple screamed and took off as Miguel fired his gun towards them. For once Miguel had managed to ask a question before he shot, but it was still a hot headed reaction that everyone had hoped to avoid. Sierra and Marco pulled out their guns as a loud voice came over a bullhorn. “This is the FBI! Put your hands up.”
All hell broke loose.
“F-f-fuckin’ snitch,” Miguel turned to Sierra.
“Me? Fuck you! How do I know you didn’t call the fucking cops?”
“Don’t worry about that now. Let’s save our asses,” Marco said.
All three ran for cover in different directions. Sierra dove for cover behind two garbage cans. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the closest cover. Ducking down, she scanned between the cans for Miguel and Marco. She spotted Miguel hiding behind a tree, returning gunfire with the agents. He couldn’t see her from this angle, but she also didn’t have a clear shot. The only other nearby cover was a tree on her left. It would put her in the line of fire for a brief moment, but she was fast and she knew her agents would cover her. Everyone protected their own. She didn’t hesitate, bolting in a low crouch to create a smaller target. Sliding to the ground, she made it in one piece.
Sierra peeked around the big tree and searched for Miguel and Marco. She didn’t want Miguel to escape, nor Marco to get injured. Marco was actually her partner, Colton Jameson. He had worn the wire today. They figured Miguel might frisk her for a wire, but he’d never suspect his own man.
In the distance someone screamed, and others joined in. Her heart beat faster. No time to think about being scared, autopilot took over. She had a perfect view of Miguel and fired a shot aimed to disarm, not kill. She hit him. Miguel pulled back behind the tree, but she couldn’t tell if he’d dropped his weapon.
Then she heard her supervisor’s voice come over the bullhorn. “Diaz, Romera, Smith give up while you’re still alive. This isn’t worth dying for.”
She had to laugh, as she shook her head. “Good ole’ Max. You don’t think that idiot’s going to listen, do you?” she muttered
“Shut up, you fuckin’ pig!” Miguel stepped out briefly from behind the tree and fired a shot towards Max. Finally Sierra located her partner. Colton was closer to Miguel and moving in on him.
Miguel turned towards Colton and fired, the bullet made contact, but not before he managed to return fire. Simultaneously, gunfire and mayhem broke out. Everything moved in slow motion. Sierra aimed her gun and fired towards Miguel. Mentally, she tried to remember just how many times he had fired his gun, thinking he should soon be running out of ammunition. At the moment of hesitation, Miguel aimed his gun at Sierra. More shots were fired. Sierra pulled back behind the tree and pain blasted her head. Everything spun as she tried to focus. She thought she screamed. Miguel went down, and she fell too. Her last thought was of Colton, hoping he was alright. Then … nothing.
Voices floated around her, overlapping and interrupting each other and creating an incomprehensible garble. Every once in a while she recognized one, but couldn’t make out their words. She couldn’t remember who it was, but couldn’t open her eyes to see who spoke. She floated on a cloud. Her mind played tricks on her and pulled her back through time. Was she dying?
Memory carried her back to her first day of high school. She remembered the words he said, “Leave the girl alone.” His gentle baritone voice filled her mind. Simple and direct, and his body drove it home. She skipped a grade ahead because the principal considered her ‘highly intelligent.’ Her mother disagreed, but her stepfather insisted. Throughout the day, the older kids had bullied and picked on her, until Johnny made it clear that no one was to bother her. Johnny Nelson. She became best friends with him that awful day.
Bright lights blinded her. She didn’t want to be there. She croaked, “I want to leave.” She didn’t know if she actually said it out loud as she floated off on that cloud again. This time, it took her to the end of her college days.
She hated that she had transferred colleges, but she liked her new roommate Cathy Smith despite her issues.
“Cathy, you shouldn’t be taking those drugs,” Sierra placed a hand on Cathy’s arm. “You’re better than this.”
“You’re not my mom,” Cathy stumbled across the dorm room and flopped on her bed.
Disappointed, Sierra left to take her finals. She had chosen a double major in criminal justice and teaching. Maybe she’d try law school, but she wasn’t sure. Maybe she had gotten so used to people treating her differently that she had become paranoid. Or at least, she felt that way. She held onto a couple of brochures about police enforcement and Federal Bureau of Investigation that sparked her interest on Career Day.
When she arrived back at the dorm hours later, darkness filled her room. Cathy wasn’t on the bed. She called out to her. When she didn’t get an answer, she searched for Cathy She opened the bathroom door. Cathy lay on the floor, not moving.
“Oh, God, what have you done?” She dropped to the floor, checked for a pulse, but it was too late for Cathy.
Maggie Walters let Johnny Nelson in the door after she heard the doorbell ring. Johnny glanced up towards the clear blue sky. The sun shining so bright and vibrant, it made him long to be lazy today.
Smiling, he entered the house. “Good to see you, Maggie.”
She gave his arm a gentle squeeze. “You too, dear. Thank you for doing this for me.”
“No problem. You said it was important.” He ran his hand through his hair.
She gestured towards a chair, “Sit down, we still have some time before we need to leave.”
As he sat down, he looked around the room briefly, then back to the elderly woman. “So, what’s this about, Maggie?
She sat across from him on a faded brown sofa that had seen better days. “I’m updating my will. It’s been a while, and I need to grant you and Sierra power of attorney.”
Shocked and surprised, he was almost speechless. “Wait. You want what?”
“Well, since I don’t really know where or how to get in touch with Sierra—and I don’t want to cut her out of my will—if anything were to happen to me and she can’t be located, I want you to make those decisions, please,” she said as her eyes began to tear up.
“So that’s why I’m taking you to your lawyer?” Johnny asked.
“Yes. Johnny, do you think you can find Sierra for me? I’d love to see my niece.” She smiled brightly with such confidence and hope in her eyes, in fact it showed all over her face.
“Maggie, I wouldn’t know where to begin.” The sudden sadness in her eyes made him realize he had to do something. There must be a way to find Sierra, he thought. “You know what, I’ll see what I can do.”
“That will be wonderful.” She reached over and grasped his hand, smiling.
Johnny helped Maggie up from the chair and waited for her while she got her purse. The drive to the lawyer’s office took them over by the Virginia Military Institute, heading into town, going past Washington and Lee. Johnny made a turn that brought them onto the main street, where he luckily found a parking spot near the lawyer’s office. Johnny helped her out of the car and they walked the rest of the way. The lawyer already had all the necessary papers drawn up and it took only twenty minutes to review everything and for Johnny and Maggie to sign where needed.
A warmth flowed over her, she swore she heard the voices again, but floated away before she understood them. Pieces of her past flashed by. The strenuous times through FBI training. The stakeouts with her partner. The tragic death of her husband, Paul, at the hands of her partner and her boss. Paul’s last words. “I’m gonna kill her. Go away.” The aunt she hadn’t seen in ages. Her mother’s and stepfather’s deaths years before.
A needle pricked her arm. Maybe she wasn’t dead yet, but she no longer floated on that cloud, either. She drifted into a sound sleep.
The rise and fall of voices accented by the pings and beeps of machines filled the room with noise. She heard her name more than once. People talked about her. No matter how hard she tried, Sierra couldn’t wake up. A force stronger than her pulled her back. She didn’t like it, not at all. Finally, she gave it her all and forced her eyes to open.
It was the most difficult thing she ever had to do. She found the white, immaculate, sterile room unfamiliar. She smelled some strong astringent. The loud screech from the intercom system hurt her ears. Carts rolled down a hallway outside her room. She was lying in a bed, a vase of flowers on the table beside her. The sweet scent of roses comforted her.
Pain danced through her head in waves. She touched it and felt bandages. She hoped there wouldn’t be a scar. Vanity set in, which wasn’t like her. Over in the corner, she heard a voice she recognized, and turned her eyes towards it. Her boss, a nice-looking man in his late 30’s, just over six feet tall with blond hair, was speaking with a man wearing a smock. They shook hands and the smocked man walked out of the room. Something happened during the drug bust, which she remembered, and now she was in the hospital. The rest was a blank.
Sierra watched the doctor leave without saying a word. When Max turned towards the bed and saw Sierra watching him, she could see the tension melt off him as his shoulders relaxed and his clenched hands opened. The furrowed brow vanished as a smile curled his lips and reflected in his emerald green eyes at the sight of her.
Supervisory Special Agent Maxwell Stewart looked around for a chair then pulled it closer to the bed. “Good, it’s about time you woke up. You had us all worried.” The single diamond of his wedding band flashed as he patted her shoulder gently.
She glanced at the flowers again. “I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck.”
Max nodded towards the nightstand. “The flowers are from everyone in the office.”
Sierra smiled and tried to sit up, but her body refused. “Is Colton, is he …?”
“He’s going to be fine. He took a bullet from Miguel, guess he didn’t want ‘Marco’ talking. Apparently, you knocked your head when you dodged that bullet. Earned yourself a slight concussion.” He smirked. “You guys did a great job. We got Diaz. He’s injured, not bad. Soon as the doctors give the okay, we can move him to the jail. We’re going to see if we can get him talking.”
“So can you get me out of this place now?” She sat up finally and winced.
“Not so fast. You have a concussion. I was hoping you’d get some rest.” He placed a hand on her shoulder and pressed her back against the pillows.
“Maaaxxx, I can rest in my apartment!” Claustrophobia threatened already. The idea of being confined in this strange room and sterile bed when she would rather be in her own familiar surroundings, her own comfort zone, was stifling.
“See, there’s a problem.” His green eyes looked everywhere except at her.
“Max? What are you not telling me?”
“Sierra, we’ve got to lose you in the system. We’ll make it look like you’re in jail. Marco has been reported DOA. I want you to go home. No one would think to look for you there.”
“Fredericksburg? Sure. You going to take care of me?” Sierra teased.
“No, back to Lexington.”
“Hey, you and Colton have been working undercover for eighteen months non-stop. Both of you need time off. He’s going to get time off too, once he’s out of the hospital, but I need you in a safe place and that place is in Lexington, Virginia. It is the last place anyone will look for you.”
“Max, I haven’t been there in years.” She shook her head and fought tears. She hated feeling vulnerable. Perhaps it was the drugs the doctors had given her, but the thought of going back to her hometown meant facing emotions she had locked away. Not wanting to dwell on it, only wanting to move on with her life. If she went back, those feelings would come back to the surface. She knew they would because her former friends were there and they most definitely wouldn’t let the past stay buried.
“Yeah, I gathered that during our years working together. Which makes it the perfect place for you to disappear. I contacted your aunt. I take it she doesn’t know you’re FBI?”
“No. Did you tell her?”
“I didn’t. But I did ask if you could stay with her to recover from a work-related injury. You’re gonna have to explain it to her.”
“Uh, when you’re able to leave, I want you to stay in touch with me. Be on alert. Just in case.”
“Always the worrier.”
“With the stunts you and Colton have pulled over the years, I have a right to be worried even when you’re on vacation.”