"You think I don't know to stay away from the cameras?" Oscar Descante asked.
"You shouldn't even be here, Oscar," Marion said. "You're the lead investigator. Let the public relations people handle it. The cartel won't want revenge on them."
"Don't worry, gringa. I'm just going to check things out."
Marion Eddy ignored the taunt, certain that the lure of taking credit for this interdiction had clouded his judgment. She stayed behind in the SUV, hidden by the onyx tint windows, knowing from experience that her fair complexion and shoulder length ash blond hair made her a media target in Mexico. She watched Descante skirt the edge of the hot set at the entrance to the airport hangar until he was in camera range. Her lips drew to a thin line. He knew better than to take that kind of risk. The La Grava cartel would have people at the press conference. People that no one would notice, but who would take careful note of those responsible for the seizure of a cargo plane from the U.S. loaded with La Grava drug money.
A reporter spotted and hailed Descante. The Policia Federal Ministerial agent feigned surprise, drew his shoulders back, and stepped in front of the cameras with a blazing smile. Marion's breath caught in her throat. She dove her hand into her pants pocket and snatched the only thing in it—a one milligram Xanax tablet. She held the blue oval between her thumb and forefinger and debated: all now or half later? Marion pressed her thumbnail into the score until it broke in half. She placed one half under her tongue, balancing the other in her open palm. Descante now stood in a halo of light, hands animated as he answered reporters' questions. His recklessness was dangerous for them both. She tossed the second half into her mouth and chewed, the chalky bitterness assurance that in about fifteen minutes, her heart would settle in its bony cage, and while the consequence of Descante's actions would still be a threat, a panic attack would not. She shrank against the seat of the SUV, pressing her spine deep into the leather.
The following day, on her second coffee run of the morning, she noticed a black sedan parked across the street from the office building housing the joint PFM-DEA task force in Mexico City's Polanco district. She alerted Fidel Roye, the PFM director. He said he'd have someone look into it. Marion looked for the car during her coffee runs the rest of that week. The hulking vehicle, chrome grill leering, was parked across the street every day. She gave Fidel until the following Monday to say something about what action he'd taken. When she'd heard nothing by late morning, Marion confronted him. "Been busy," was his blow off.
"You realize that between the stunt Descante pulled at the press conference and what looked to me like cartel surveillance, La Grava has had at least three days to check us out. Plus the weekend. They probably know all the agents on the joint task force," she said. "And I bet they took pictures."
Fidel's eyes had drawn to slits. "Nosotros nos encargamos, mi reina." We'll take care of it, my queen, he hissed. He turned to his computer, waving a dismissive hand in her direction.
Marion stood rooted to the floor. The five weeks on loan to the joint task force seemed like five years. It had been an intense assignment, made more so by the dismissive PFM director. It didn't help that the only thing waiting for her after the long hours in the PFM office were hotel elevators jammed with businessmen oozing tequila and testosterone. That might've been convenient under different circumstances, but not now, when all she wanted was to go home.
"You still here?" He read an email aloud, under his breath.
Her cheeks burned. She drew herself to her nearly six-foot height. "Who will take care of it?"
"Maybe Descante. He's leading the investigation after all."
"Yeah? So where is he? I haven't seen him this morning."
"Let's see ..." The director glanced at his watch. "I believe he's out in the field at this moment." He looked at her over his half-rim glasses. "Probably taking care of it."
Marion's brain fired an expletive response, a hard-wired impulse left over from her incendiary teenage years—but she thought better. Instead she said, "Look, this is serious. How can you ignore—"
"No more." Fidel stood up, the skin on his neck reddening above his shirt collar. "Know your place. You're not a real agent. You're an analyst. So analyze. Don't bother me about what La Grava knows or doesn't know. Or where Descante is. We're on it. Mi re-i-na."
"Please don't call me that." Marion gripped the edge of his desk with both hands and leaned in. "I was sent here because you needed help. Which I delivered."
Fidel's thick eyelids could not veil his disdain. "You're here because the DEA invited you. Not me. They think you have some magic ability to divine what El Cuerno is up to."
El Cuerno. The street name for Caleb Gabriel, leader of La Grava cartel. Marion's nose wrinkled in disgust. "Not magic, Fidel. Skill. Apparently that's in short supply between all y'all PFM folks and the DEA." The Texas accent that Marion had meticulously trained out of her speech snuck through, hitching a ride on her anger. She caught it, held her breath for a moment.
Fidel danced in his seat, waving his hands back and forth. "How does she do it, how can she know so much? I hear rumors."
Marion slapped her palms against the edge of his desk. "What rumors, Fidel?"
"I know nothing." His voice stretched high and thin on the last syllable. "Only that we pendejos had to fly the queen and all her magic here from San Francisco to find out what's happening in our own backyard."
"Then maybe you pendejos should listen."
Fidel reddened further and pushed himself to his feet, sweeping past her and out of his glass-walled corner office without another word. He threaded his way through the rows of desks where task force agents sat working and headed for the double doors leading to the elevator lobby. Marion stormed into the bullpen after him.
"Hey! I want an answer."
"Leave it, Agent Eddy."
Marion spun around. Evan Leigh, the DEA Special Agent in Charge, emerged from his office. He bobbed his shaved head, a reflex from many years of doorframes an inch shy of his considerable height.
He tilted his head toward the agents in the bullpen. It was clear they'd caught the whole conversation with Fidel. Evan gave Marion an emphatic nod, then switched gears. "Your report ready for the debrief meeting this afternoon?"
She sipped shallow breaths to calm herself. "Almost."
"Get it done, then." He pressed his lips together and turned toward his office.
"What about the surveillance from last week?" Marion said.
Evan's shoulders rose and fell. He faced her. "Director Roye said he's got Oscar Descante on it."
"I don't believe that," Marion said. "Descante's too busy looking for media opps. I gave Director Roye a heads up last Tuesday. Trust me, neither of them has done anything."
"Fidel Roye is the PFM director, and in plain terms, there's no dick for me or you to swing here. We're guests of his organization, of his country."
Marion tuned him out as he lectured her. She wished her boss Xavier Benjamin Paul was standing there instead. The two men, both pushing fifty, had a shared history. Both from Texas, they'd gone through Army Ranger school together and served in the same military intelligence unit. After the Army, they'd pursued parallel careers—Evan in the DEA and Xavier at IDA. But the similarity stopped there. Given this same situation, Xavier would've had her back. He would've taken her concern about the suspected surveillance seriously and gone after Fidel himself to get an answer.
Evan wound down his harangue. "I promise I'll ask Fidel about the surveillance when he cools down. For now, I want you to focus on the debrief. That's all."
"So, have you heard from Oscar Descante yet today either? Or seen him?"
"I haven't. But Fidel reported him in the field at our stand up meeting this morning." Evan cleared his throat. "Here's the god's honest truth, Agent Eddy. You're every bit as brilliant as Xavier said you'd be. But I gotta tell you, I've had to do more damage control in the month you've been here than in my entire career."
"Five weeks," she said. "I've been here five weeks."
"Okay, five weeks, then. The rest of the task force has been here eight. And I live here, this is my permanent post. I need to get along with these folks. Everyone knows that without your work, there'd be no interdiction against La Grava. But could you find it within yourself to be a little more diplomatic? Just until the assignment is over?"
Xavier had loaned Marion to the PFM-DEA joint task force effort as a favor to Evan when Mexico City police found a scribbled piece of paper with what appeared to be flight schedules sewn into the jacket of a murdered airport baggage handler. The manner of death suggested execution by La Grava's head assassin, Roberto Stellare—and no one in North America knew more about the La Grava cartel than Marion Eddy. It was Marion who had teased a pattern from the scribbles, a pattern that ultimately allowed the task force team to predict which flights bound to Mexico from the U.S. carried La Grava drug money.
"Fine by me," she said. "Just want to make sure I've got it. Nothing will be done about the La Grava surveillance and you're okay with that."
"Let it go, Agent Eddy." Evan Leigh walked away.
© J.R. Hampton