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J.R. Hampton J.R. Hampton

The Snapback



Jessica Eden grabbed the only thing in her pocket—a blue one-milligram Xanax tablet, her third of the day. Or maybe the fourth. She'd lost count. All she knew as she watched her partner walk onto the hot set of the press conference was that she needed more.

A reporter spotted him and waved him over. The Mexican federal agent stepped in front of the cameras with a blazing smile. Jessica shrank against the seat of their unmarked SUV, pressing her spine deep into the leather. "Don't be stupid, please don't be stupid," she said. But Oscar Descante couldn't hear her. She'd stayed behind, parked outside the Mexico City cargo hangar, knowing her height (pushing six feet) and the prematurely white hair grazing her shoulders (she was only thirty-one) made her stand out at events like this. Her lips drew to a thin line. Descante knew better than to take a risk like this. He knew to leave the pressers to the PR people. La Grava cartel would be here taking careful note of anyone involved in the seizure of their plane—a plane loaded with laundered drug money inbound from the U.S. This plane marked the end of the first month of a successful revenue denial blitz orchestrated by a joint Policía Federal Ministerial PFM-DEA task force. The PFM, despite the DEA telling them it was a bad idea, had insisted on the press conference to mark the occasion.

Jessica pressed her thumbnail into the blue oval until it broke in half. She debated: all now or half later? Descante stood in a halo of light, hands animated as he answered reporters' questions. His recklessness was dangerous for them both. Hell with it. She tossed both halves into her mouth and chewed. Jessica functioned perfectly well on Xanax, had for years. Even the higher doses she'd been taking this past six weeks on assignment in Mexico hadn't changed that. The same could not be said for feeling she was about to step out of her skin. Her anxiety was seriously rattling its cage tonight.

The next morning on her coffee run, she noticed a black sedan parked across from the building that housed the joint PFM-DEA task force. The vehicle was there when she ran out to grab lunch a few hours later, and then again the following morning when she arrived for work. She alerted Fidel Roye, the PFM director, who said he'd have someone look into it. Jessica thanked him and made a mental note to give it to the end of the week before escalating to Evan Leigh, the Mexico City DEA Special Agent in charge. The six weeks she'd been working with the PFM-DEA task force, Fidel had acknowledged her suggestions, but done nothing unless the idea was also brought up by one of his own people. She'd asked her partner Oscar to help her at least get the important stuff across. He was a good sport about it, telling her Fidel was old school, not a good listener, and not to take it personally.

"Serious? He listens to everyone else," she'd said. "I'm the only one he ignores."

"Es dificil ser la reina."

"That's not helping," she'd said. Oscar had laughed.

Jessica waited and watched the car on her trips outside the building. It sat parked across the street, blacked out windows and chrome grill leering, the rest of the week. The next Monday, it was gone.

She followed Fidel to his office after the Monday morning team meeting. She asked if he'd found out anything about the car or the odd surveillance.

"What surveillance?" Evan Leigh entered Fidel's office behind her. "And why odd?" He bobbed his shaved head as he came through the doorway, a reflex from many years of doorframes an inch shy of his height. She bit the inside of her cheek. Evan's history with her boss, Xavier Ekhardt was to thank for this thankless assignment.

The two men, both pushing fifty, had gone through Army Ranger School together and served in the same military intelligence unit. Evan had joined the DEA after the army and Xavier had founded Quanticore, a private intelligence agency. When the Mexico City PFM found a scrap of scribbled flight schedules on the body of a baggage handler—a known La Grava associate, the joint PFM-DEA task force had been formed, and Evan asked if Quanticore could take a look. Jessica found a pattern in the scribbles that when tested, led to the interdiction of the first La Grava plane. Fidel hadn't been able to ignore that. Based on their first successful seizure, a full-on revenue denial operation had been launched. Jessica had been partnered with Oscar Descante to help with intel analysis. That had been a month ago.

She shared what she'd observed with Evan. "The surveillance was purposeful," she said. "They didn't move the car, like they wanted us to notice they were there watching. Which makes sense given the stunt Descante pulled."

"What stunt?" Evan asked.

Why didn't Evan already know? Weren't he and Fidel supposed to be jointly running this joint task force? "He was showing off at the press conference." Jessica crossed her arms.

"You knew about this?" Evan asked the PFM director.

Fidel shrugged. "Of course. Descante answered some reporters' questions, that's all."

"And then a car appeared automagically and sat parked across the street, surveilling us every day for three days straight while you did nothing," she said. "Descante's stunt blew our cover. La Grava for sure knows all the agents on the task force by now."

"I already said we'd look into it."

"And?" She was all of out polite. Her eyes landed on the wall clock above Fidel's head. It wasn't even noon.

"Descante's handling it. He led the interdiction after all."

"What he led was La Grava straight to our—"

"Good enough," Evan said. He made a move for the door, then turned. "Where is Descante anyway? I missed him at the team meeting this morning."

"He's in the field." Fidel looked at Jessica over his half-rim glasses. "Probably looking into it."

"Like y'all would even know." The Texas accent Jessica had meticulously trained out of her speech snuck through, hitching a ride on her frustration.

Evan shot her a look. "Okay, then." He walked out of Fidel's office. Jessica loped after him.

"Your report ready for the debrief this afternoon?" Evan asked as she caught up to him.


"Good. How about giving Roye a break and focusing on that instead?"

"How about the surveillance from last week?"

"Director Roye said he's got Descante on it."

"You believe that?"

Evan's shoulders rose and fell. "Look. Fidel Roye is the PFM director and we're his guests. There's no dick for me or you to swing here. I'll follow-up with Fidel about the surveillance later."

"What if there isn't a later? I mean, that car was out there for three days."

"Let it go, Agent Eden." Evan continued to his office.

© J.R. Hampton