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First pages

-1-

“Four guards,” Maggie said to John Rae. “And that’s just on the front gate.”

Two limos idled in front of theirs, tailpipes puffing in the cool night air, waiting to enter the minister’s Spanish colonial mansion over a mile and a half above sea level. The lights of the capital twinkled in the narrow, mile-long valley below. A river of fog poured down into the pueblos jovenes—shantytowns—from the Andes.

Maggie de la Cruz could see all the guards through the limousine’s tinted window clearly now. Two were obvious, moonlight reflecting off their silver helmets as they checked the papers of guests attending the oil minister’s party. Two more soldiers waited in the shadows behind the tall wrought-iron fence, the outlines of submachine guns visible.

Flashlight beams bounced as one guard examined underneath a vehicle. Another instructed occupants to get out, so they could be patted down.

Maggie’s heart rate sped up. “They’re searching the guests,” she said.

“Don’t y’all worry,” Agent John Rae Hutchens said, sitting next to her in the roomy back seat. “With the international guest list Minister Beltran has, it’s no surprise. Besides we’ve got nothing to hide.”

“Except that we’re here to arrest him.” Maggie snapped open her chain-mail clutch purse, extracted her lipstick. She had requested more people on this operation. But the Agency knew better. She was just a bean counter. “There will be more guards out back, too,” she said. “Behind the mansion.”

“Don’t sweat it.” John Rae brushed his thick sandy-colored hair behind his ear. “The National Vice Squad will be here to make the actual arrest. All we need to do is set it up for them.”

“If they can make it through the gate,” Maggie said.

“They’re the top police force in this country.”

“A country known for its corruption.”

John Rae checked his cell phone, reading a text. “On their way. Once the documents have been signed and the payoff confirmed, they’ll come in and arrest Beltran and his two cronies.”

Wasn’t it pretty to think so? But she had to remind herself that distrust was part of her job and sometimes it could get the better of her. This was a quarry that wanted to walk into a trap. Two million dollars was one hell of a honeypot.

The pearl Mercedes 500 in front of them motored up to the guard shack. A soldier checked papers, waved them through with his white-gloved hand, then beckoned their car forward. Achic, their driver, a small-framed Indian in a voluminous suit who was also an undercover SINE agent collaborating on the op, put their car into gear.

“Got the official invitation, Achic?” Maggie asked in Spanish.

He held up a heavy-weight bond letter in one hand. “I do, ma’am.”

“A little less on the ma’am,” Maggie said. “I’m younger than you are.” She caught a smile in the rearview mirror. “Ten to one they pat us down.”

“Just remember, Maggie,” John Rae said. “Y’all are along for the ride.”

“And the fact that I handle the electronic bank transfer? And collect everyone’s signature?” The hard evidence would seal the fates of a corrupt Ecuadorian oil minister, a Chinese premier and—tonight’s star prize—a vice president of a company owned by Commerce Oil.

“This is a milk run, Maggie,” John Rae said. “Let me take care of the heavy lifting—if there is any. And there won’t be.”

“That’s good—because none of us are armed.”

Two million could generate a lot of potential resistance.

Maggie nudged John Rae to one side with a bare shoulder and used the rearview mirror as she freshened up her lipstick. She had her mother’s looks: dark, Indian, striking. She was lucky in that respect. John Rae leaned to one side in the leather seat to give her an appraising glance as he took in her figure, more Latin than American, firmed by the miles pounded out in her ASICs on San Francisco’s hills. Her long raven-colored hair gleamed. Her soft skin practically glowed with Christian Dior.

“I’m speechless,” he said.

“I doubt that will that ever be the case.” She shot him a wink as she put her lipstick away, sat back, admired her new black Gianvito Rossi toe pumps. With the single-shoulder black evening gown, she looked a lot more confident than she felt.

This was only her second field op, a departure from her regular gig as a forensic financial analyst for the Agency. She needed to branch out, climb up from the rut she was stuck in. John Rae was the lead, and a seasoned pro. But the criminal world was a technical one anymore and being able to crack a firewall was often more valuable than kicking down doors. It was Maggie who had caught the irregularity in the oil worker’s paystub that led them all to being here in the first place.

The driver’s window whirred down and Achic addressed the guards softly, as his nature demanded, despite the fact that he was a decorated Ecuadorian Coast Guard vet with three tours of the Amazon, where los cocainistas ran rampant, under his belt.

“Where are your papers?” the guard snapped at Achic, using the form of the verb and pronoun. Informal, insulting—the way one would talk to a servant, or a child.

“What for?” Achic said, nodding back at Maggie and John Rae. “I’m their driver.”

“Get out of the car, boy.”

Oye!” Maggie leaned forward, catching the guard’s eye, shooting daggers into the coarse face of a big Mestizo. His eyes narrowed in return from under the shiny brim of his helmet.

“What’s your problem, chapo?” she said in the local dialect. “You saw the letter. It’s signed by the Oil Minister’s secretary. Or can’t you read?”

The guard was clearly taken aback, but there was no mistaking the angry folds creasing either side of his mouth. In a different setting, Maggie would be begging his understanding.

John Rae’s hand touched her arm. “Settle down, darlin’.”

She swiped his hand away. “Don’t call me ‘darlin’ unless we’re in bed together. And that’s not likely to happen.” Maggie continued to trade stares with the guard. “And what’s your name?” She annunciated the clearly, the way he had done with Achic. “I need to make sure Minister Beltran knows what kind of people he has working the gates. Or should I say ‘used to work’?”

“I meant no disrespect, señorita,” the guard said, clearing his throat. He stepped back, stood to attention, waved them on.

“Okay, Maggie,” John Rae said as they drove through the gates, which had clanked open. “I’m impressed. Look, I didn’t mean anything I said back there. That’s just the way we talk where I come from.”

“I know,” she said. “I just don’t like shitheads who bully Indians.” It ran a little too close to home.

“But you know—you did just say not likely to happen. About us being in the sack? That means I’ve still got a fighting chance.”

She shook her head and laughed. They stopped inside the gates where a guard ran a flashlight under the wheel wells, then asked them to get out of the car for a search. Maggie grabbed her leather briefcase containing the sting documents and a svelte MacBook.

“Hopefully, the Vice Squad will be here soon,” she said as she got out.

John Rae checked his phone again. “I’ll let them know almost we’re inside the target.”

~~~

A sonidera band was playing a subdued cumbia at the far end of a ballroom the size of a fútbol stadium, where the high-coved ceiling flickered with moonlight shimmering off Minster Beltran’s swimming pool out back. Beyond that, the moon broke through clouds over the jagged Andes.

Faces Maggie recognized from Agency files dotted the room. One or two men chatted with the tightly clad escorts who seemed to be trying to outdo one another for alluring companion of the year. It wasn’t unheard of for a local girl to be taken up as a mistress by an important figure and have her life change dramatically. All ethnicities of men were represented, some in suits and ties, and the occasional red-and-white-checked keffiyeh.

“Kind of like the National Geographic.” John Rae handed Maggie a glass of burgundy-colored punch. “But with clothes and money.”

Lots of money,” she said, taking a sip of sweet sangria. Not bad. “Oil money. Drooling to tear up what’s left of the Amazon. For the nine hundred million barrels they just found under the Yasuni Rainforest.”

“That A-rab over there with the blousy woman,” John Rae said. “He’s drinking a highball. I didn’t think they were allowed to do that.”

“What—speak to women? They generally don’t. Unless it’s to order something to eat or tell her he wants sex. Or both.”

Drink.

“The kind of cash he has buys all sorts of free passes.”

Back by the bar stood two Latin men in dark suits and ties, wearing sunglasses indoors. Hands behind their backs, as if at attention, they had matching gun bulges under their left armpits.

“What about Abbot and Costello over there?” she asked.

“Yeah, I noticed them when we came in.”

Maggie sipped sangria, pretending to relax. “Anything to worry about?”

“At an event like this?” John Rae frowned and took a drink of Heineken beer from a long-neck bottle as he weighed things up. “With half the criminal world south of the equator in attendance? They’re probably just here to make sure no one walks off with the silver.”

“They keep looking this way.”

“You mean, they keep looking your way. That’s because you’re the most interesting thing to look at.” John Rae gave Maggie a smile, held his bottle out for a toast.

She blushed slightly, clinked her glass cup on John Rae’s bottle, caught Achic’s eye by the door where he stood dutifully with the servants, holding her briefcase. Achic gave Maggie a careful nod, indicating a biggish man wearing a hand-embroidered Quechua shirt under his Armani jacket who had just entered the huge double doors. His well-combed hair offset a pock-marked face and a cruel-looking mouth. Armand Beltran: Ecuador’s oil minister. He stopped and spoke to a smallish man with a thin mustache and glasses.

“There’s our victim,” John Rae said. “One of them, anyway.”

Beltran noticed Maggie, gave her an open leer.

“Doesn’t have a clue who I am,” she said to John Rae as she smiled back at Beltran. “Thinks I’m one of the paid escorts.”

“Don’t take it too hard. There are some pretty high-end hookers here.”

“Ha ha.”

“How did a clown like that ever become oil minister anyway?”

“Started as a foreman with a little oil driller in Colombia, chiseling the workers, taking a cut from their pay packets if they wanted to keep their jobs. Worked his way up to be pals with all the people no one else wanted to be seen with: drug dealers, organized crime—you name it. The president of Ecuador gave him a ministerial slot so he doesn’t have to sully his hands with anyone dirty. Look at him. Wouldn’t be caught dead talking to an Indian, but wears the shirt, now that they’re in fashion. Doesn’t know a potato from a pumpkin.”

“Well, he’ll get his soon enough. Once Velox and Li show, we can get started.”

“Have National Vice confirmed yet?” Maggie asked.

“Stuck in traffic.”

“Ai.”

“Don’t sweat it, darlin’. Not that ladies sweat in the first place.”

“I’m going to check in with Achic.”

“Looks like we ordered some class tail for this party,” she heard Beltran say in Spanish to his companion in what was probably meant to be a discreet tone as she strolled past on her way to Achic.

“An oil deal ultimately worth billions?” his partner said. “What surprises me is that she’s wearing any clothes at all.”

“With an ass like hers, the gringos’ll pay double. But then, I’m an ass man, from way back.”

They snorted laughs.

“Want something to drink?” Maggie said to Achic, drinking sangria.

“Not while on duty, thank you. Are Vice here yet?”

“On their way—or so they keep saying.”

Achic grimaced and she knew what he was thinking. Anyone in law enforcement in a country like this was suspect of being on the take or incompetent at best, no matter how high up they were. Achic, however, had been thoroughly vetted by the Agency. “Thank you, by the way: for telling that tombo out on the gate where to go. I took a bullet on the Napo River when I was in the Coast Guard, but to them I’ll always be a caiman—a lazy Indian.”

“I know what it’s like,” she said, sipping her drink.

“With all due respect, señorita, I don’t think you do.”

“We’ll see: Where are you from?”

“A little village called Cotacachi,” he said. “Just outside …”

“Otavalo,” she said. “I went there when I was six years old. For Fiesta del Yamor.”

A look of surprise crossed Achic’s face. “But you’re from San Francisco, California—”

“Born in Zuleta,” she said in Quechua. “My father is a yanqui. I was sent to the U.S. when my mami died.”

“Lucky you,” he said.

“In some ways.” She turned, traded glances with John Rae, on his phone again. John Rae gave a shrug. Nothing yet. Maggie sauntered over to Beltran the ass man, all wet smiles and ogle eyes. His companion was at the bar.

“Well, hello there, chica,” Beltran oozed in Spanish. “And what’s your name?”

“Kristina Marin. From Star Bank?” She put her hand out in a businesslike manner. “Representing Commerce Oil. For the document signing? A pleasure to meet you, Minister Beltran.”

Beltran coughed into his drink. “I’m so sorry,” he said, immediately changing his tone, shaking Maggie’s hand. “We weren’t properly introduced.”

“Not a problem,” she said. “Where are the others? Velox and Li?”

“Just arriving.” Beltran nodded at two men entering the room, a norteamericano with silver hair and sideburns and a severe-looking Asian wearing a dark suit and a wide tie. Earnest Velox, regional vice president with Five Fortunes Petroleum, a Chinese shell company fronting Commerce Oil, and Hong Li, the Chinese premier spearheading the Amazon deal in exchange for two billion dollars in loans.

The two men joined Maggie and Beltran. Once introductions were out of the way, Velox was quick to get to the point.

“Did you bring the documents, Miss Marin?” Velox smiled warmly, but Maggie knew him to be ruthless when it came to anything that got in the way of drilling for oil.

“I did, indeed,” Maggie said, trying to snag John Rae’s eye. He was on his cell phone again, not smiling and looking at his watch. “Did you bring a pen?”

Velox patted the breast of his suit coat. “Should we get started? I have a red-eye later tonight. Back to Beijing.”

Frowning, John Rae put his phone in his pocket, smoothed the flap over it, then came striding over, hand out, brandishing a smile. “Well, hello there, gentlemen—and I do use the term loosely.” Laughs all around. “JT Owens—Star Bank, on behalf of Commerce Oil. How y’ all doin’ anyway? I see you’ve already met my lovely assistant.”

Hands were shaken, backs slapped.

“Now we’re in business,” Velox said. “I believe we’re meeting next door. Correct, Minister Beltran?”

“Yes we are.”

“What’s your rush?” John Rae said. “You just got here. This promises to be one hell of a party, eh, Minister?”

“My parties are never anything less,” Beltran said.

Velox looked at his watch. “I wish we could, but …”

“Anybody want a real drink?” Maggie drained her sangria, winking at Beltran. “I’m ready for something stronger. And I bet twenty-five centavos your barman makes a terrific pisco sour.”

“I have verified that to be true,” Beltran said with a grin, giving Maggie bedroom eyes.

“Now you’re talking,” John Rae said, taking Maggie’s empty glass. “Anybody else? Come on, gentlemen. Where I come from it’s bad luck to sign a deal without wetting it first.”

John Rae stopped a waiter in a white jacket, ordered drinks. They arrived, far too soon for Maggie’s liking, and everyone drank.

Velox, Li, and Beltran were now checking watches regularly.

“I hear your pool table was built in Spain in 1792,” John Rae said to Beltran. “I do love the game, but it doesn’t love me. I promise to lose gracefully.”

Beltran lost his smile. Velox’s was non-existent. Li’s face turned to vinegar.

“I was telling your assistant here that we have to get to the airport tonight,” Velox said to John Rae. “With the traffic in Quito, we need to leave soon.”

“I agree,” Beltran said.

“JT,” Maggie said. “Can I have a quick word with you?”

“Sure, darlin’,” John Rae said. “Excuse me, gents.” He and Maggie moved off to one side, well away from Velox, Li, and Beltran.

Maggie said: “I’m starting to smell a rat.”

“I hate to say this.” John Rae maintained a devil-may-care smile, but his words were the opposite. “But I’m thinking we better bail.”

“Yes.” Maggie gave a deep sigh. “We’ll never get another shot at it.”

“No, we won’t. You had to beg to get this, Maggie. And they were reluctant. This was your shot to make good. But, I’m sorry to say, it’s starting to look a little funky. I’ll make up some excuse, tell them we can’t go through with it.”

In her mind, Maggie saw the bulldozers tearing up ancient trees and the topsoil of the Amazon blowing away. That would only be the start. Entire tribes would be rendered homeless, made extinct. There were two pristine fragments of Amazon rainforest—the lungs of the planet. The Yasuni was one of them. With it gone, that left one lung. And seven billion people needing to breathe through it.

“Christ, John Rae—it’s not just about me. I want to nail those guys. I want Commerce Oil.”

Their eyes met. More than a little electricity. “You and me both. But you know the protocol: if Vice fails to show, we can’t move forward with the arrest. We’re not armed. We’ll just have to give ’em the money, regroup, and report back home. Convince the guys up top to think this warrants another stab down the road.”

Maggie felt a year’s work slipping away.

“John Rae, you didn’t come all the way down here to give those bums two million and go back home without a fish. And Commerce Oil is a whale.”

“I knew you and I were cut from the same cloth.”

“We can string them along, right up to the signing. If National Vice aren’t here by then, we’ll cancel. I’ll pretend the access codes don’t work.”

John Rae drank. “You got it.”

Maggie saw Velox marching over. His smile had a twitch to it.

“Is there some kind of problem?” he said. “Li’s starting to get antsy. We all are, quite frankly.”

“None at all,” John Rae said.

“We had to notify Star Bank and let them know we’re going to be entering the access codes in the next fifteen minutes,” Maggie said.

“We’ll be right over, Mr. Velox,” John Rae said. “Thank you so much for your patience.”

Velox huffed mildly and marched back over to Li and Beltran.

“How am I going to know if Vice are on their way?” Maggie said. “How are you going to communicate that to me?”

“Right hand on the chin means it’s a go,” John Rae said, demonstrating. “Left means no.”

“And if we get right up to singing, and it’s still a no?

“Give Beltran the damn money.”

“That’s about the worst plan I’ve ever heard,” she said.

“Me too,” John Rae said. “But it’s the official line from head office. No one wants to see anyone get hurt over two measly million.”

“Two measly million of U.S. taxpayers’ money.”

“Bottom line, this is a milk run. And I’m not just a pretty face, either.” John Rae flashed one of his winning smiles, patted Maggie’s arm. “Roll with it.” He turned, looked over at Velox, Beltran, and Li, waiting. Velox tapped his wristwatch and raised his eyebrows.

“Let’s get signing,” Maggie said.

~~~

In a grand office next door, the five of them sat around a table the size of an aircraft carrier, while the two humorless men in aviator glasses manned the door, hands behind their backs. One man was about ten pounds heavier than the other, but apart from that, they were clones. The ceiling high above dazzled with elaborate rococo plasterwork with gilt highlights. The far end of the room, overlooking the pool, gave out onto a huge leaded-glass window of dozens of frames. The murmur of the band and party was muffled through the thick stone walls.

Li leafed through the documents to be signed, while Maggie booted up her MacBook.

The first thing she did was to activate the web cam and position the computer so that she had Beltran, Li, and Velox nicely framed. She hit record. All of this would be documented, whatever transpired.

Li passed the papers to Velox and eyed Maggie. “I hope Star Bank understands the discretion this transaction requires.” His voice echoed in the room.

“It’s all been made very clear, Mr. Premier,” Maggie said, speaking clearly so the microphone would catch everything. “None of us wishes a high profile. Commerce Oil wants complete discretion as well. That’s why Star Bank is representing them. The two million will be transferred to Minister Beltran’s private account.”

Maggie saw the suspicion in Li’s face. No one trusted a man like Beltran. But there was plenty of cash for everyone down the road once Five Fortunes started pumping oil out of the Amazon for Commerce. The two million was penny ante compared to what these men stood to make for their respective interests.

“It all looks kosher to me,” Velox said, reaching into the breast pocket of his suit jacket, retrieving a gold pen. “As soon as Miss Marin here finalizes the electronic payment, I’m good to go.” He clicked his pen a couple of times with his thumb.

Beltran smiled as well and Li even divulged what might have been called a non-frown.

John Rae had his phone out and was checking texts.

Maggie kept one eye on him while she accessed the Agency’s global IKON network, looking for any indication that National Vice might not show.

John Rae rubbed his chin with his left hand. Vice were still en route.

Maggie took her time logging into Star Bank Online, the front that she had set up. The USB connector flickered green as an hourglass on the laptop’s screen stopped spinning.

“What is taking so long?” Beltran said in a stony voice that bounced around the big room.

“Slow satellite connection,” Maggie said. She gave John Rae a sideways glance. He rubbed his chin with his right hand, gave her an almost imperceptible nod.

Brigada del vicio nacional were in place. She could move ahead.

Relief flowed thrown her otherwise acidic stomach.

She selected as payee the Amazon Wildlife Restoration Fund, a front owned by Beltran, and, while another hourglass spun, retrieved her digital-access key fob, a small device the size of a keychain, typed in yet another password, and was presented with a one-time use digital key. She entered that hexadecimal number onto another screen, stepped through more authentication, and landed on the main account page.

There it was, waiting to be kicked off: an electronic payment from Star Bank to Beltran’s façade account, based in the Isle of Jersey, British Isles: $2.1 million.

And when the documents were signed and the transaction completed, arrests would be made.

How very little money powerful men could be bought for.

Powerful weak men.

“Here we are gentlemen,” she said. “Finally.

Just then, the vip of a text popped up on Maggie’s screen.

msg pending from Blackhorse:

Blackhorse was Ed, her Agency supervisor, back in San Francisco.

Maggie typed a quick response: ?

Blackhorse: NVC is 10-7

Maggie stared in disbelief. 10-7 was old CB-radio code for “out of service.” NVC was obviously the National Vice Squad. The vice squad wasn’t going to show after all. John Rae must have gotten some bad information. Or someone was leading him on.

She typed a quick response: r u sure?

10-4

so no go? she typed.

go ahead and authorize but no pending action will be taken

Beltran must have found out about the arrest. Cancelled it. But she was supposed to go ahead and give the rat two million dollars of U.S. taxpayer money anyway, and then let him, Li, and Velox go off and trash the Amazon at will.

k, she typed to Ed. will do

“Is there some problem?” Beltran said.

Maggie looked up at the attentive faces watching her.

“I’m so sorry, gentlemen,” she said. ”But I seem to be having problems with the access code. I’m afraid we’ll have to reconvene while I look into it.”

John Rae squinted at her, trying to read her words.

She rubbed her chin with her left hand.

He did a double take, as if to say—really?

She gave a curt nod.

“What the hell is going on?” Velox said, bordering on a screech.

Li and Beltran drilled her with unpleasant stares. John Rae was looking at Maggie with his eyebrows raised.

“We can’t proceed,” she said to him. Meaning, I’m not going to proceed.

“I see,” John Rae said, nodding sagely. Then, to Beltran, Velox, and Li: “I hate to say it, gents, but Ms. Marin needs to sort this out. Damn computers, anyway. We were better off when we used a shopping bag full of cash. Can we circle back tomorrow?”

“No,” Beltran said, his voice rising. “We can’t. I demand an explanation.”

Li was panic-stricken. Velox was gulping.

“Make that bank transfer,” Beltran said to Maggie.

“I wish I could,” she said.

“I don’t believe you for a moment,” he said. “You’ve been stalling us for an hour. Now do as I say or I’ll have you placed under arrest.”

“What?” Velox said to Beltran. Li was looking more than uncomfortable.

“They’re trying to back out of the deal,” Beltran said.

“Now relax,” Maggie said. “I just need to get another access code. That requires several approvals. I’ll start contacting people, but it’s late. It won’t be ready until tomorrow. Say first thing?”

Beltran snapped his fingers at the two men by the door. They drew their pistols and came forward. Beltran stared at Maggie with slitted eyes. “Make the transfer,” he said between his teeth.

“Gentlemen,” John Rae said, drumming his fingers calmly on the table. “And I use the term more loosely than before, because you ain’t gentlemen at all now, are you? What we have here is what is commonly called a Mexican standoff. Sorry for the political incorrectness and all.”

“Do you really think the National Vice Police are waiting outside?” Beltran said with a smirk. “Who do you think runs this country?”

John Rae nodded, quite calmly, taking everything in.

“I’m not sure I like this,” Velox said to Beltran, eyeing the two men with their pistols drawn. “Maybe we do need to make alternate plans.”

Corruption, Maggie knew, was one thing, but being part of something that involved guns wouldn’t fly with someone like Velox, a well-known American businessman with connections to Commerce Oil. Li, a political figure in China, would probably be less fazed, though he was much less easy to read.

“They have no intention of making any transfer,” Beltran said to Velox and Li. “Can’t you see that?”

“Then we need to resume at some other time,” Velox said. “Or cancel altogether. I didn’t authorize anything like this.”

John Rae said, “We’re not paying you a thing, Beltran. Not tonight.”

“I beg to differ,” Beltran said and Maggie saw what he was thinking. The payoff slipping away. A drastic change to the oil deal. Quite possibly failure. What would that mean for him? He had scrabbled his whole life to get where he was.

John Rae stood up. “Pack up, Ms. Marin,” he said to Maggie. “We’re out of here.”

Beltran signaled one of the men with guns to come closer. Then he pointed at John Rae. “Sit down. If you don’t, you’ll regret it. So will she.”

John Rae nodded as if he had been asked whether he wanted soup or salad. He straightened his jacket, sat back down.

Beltran spoke to the gunman: “If she doesn’t authorize that bank transfer, put a bullet in one of her pretty little knees. She can decide which one.”

The gunman approached the table.

John Rae was leaning back in his chair, not looking rattled at all. He said to Maggie, “Just go ahead and send the money, then, or whatever it is you do with that damn thing. We’ll deal with these people when we get back home.”

“Are you sure?” Maggie pressed the power button and held it down until the MacBook’s screen went black and the laptop powered down. “Ai, mierda! That’s ‘shit’ for you non-Spanish speakers, by the way.”

“Why, you damn puta!” Beltran growled.

John Rae leapt up, swinging a fist so fast the gunman’s face hadn’t fully dropped in surprise before John Rae clocked his jaw with a crack that sent the man’s sunglasses flying, skidding and spinning across the polished floor. His gun went off, thunder echoing off the high ceiling, and John Rae was on top of him, punching in short, sharp blows, suit jacket ripping at the armpit as his arm moved like a piston.

Li, Velox, and Beltran jumped up from the table and dashed for the door.

Plaster dust rained down as the other gunman came forward, pistol in both hands now, moving to and fro as he tried for a shot that wouldn’t take out his partner.

Maggie sprang up, folding her laptop shut. Reaching back with it, she took aim.

“Hey, boludo!” she shouted at the gunman leveling his weapon on John Rae.

The gunman looked up at Maggie just as the laptop caught him directly in the face. He jerked, stumbling backwards. He dropped his gun and fell. The laptop bounced off the floor. John Rae saw this, leapt off gunman number one, secured number two’s gun. He jumped up, gun in hand.

Gunman one scrambled to his feet, fired, hit John Rae in the leg. John Rae swore calmly, hopping on one foot, bringing the pistol up, firing twice, hitting gunman number one both times. The man staggered and fell, the back of his head hitting the floor with a thump.

John Rae grabbed his leg, already blossoming red, swung the pistol on gunman number two, who was climbing up off the floor.

“Get the hell out of here, Maggie!” John Rae yelled.

Beltran, Li, and Velox were long gone.

Achic came rushing into the room, saw what was going on, ran over to pick up the gun that gunman number one had dropped.

“Will you get her the hell out of here?” John Rae said to Achic while he held his pistol on gunman two. “On your knees, pal. Hands above your head.”

The man blinked in confusion.

“¡Sobre sus rodillas!” Maggie shouted at the gunman. “¡Manos encima de la cabeza!”

The gunman got on his knees, put his hands up.

“Go on, Maggie,” John Rae said, gripping his bloody leg. “You and Achic—out of here.”

“Don’t think we’re leaving you here,” Maggie said. “There are at least four guys outside.”

“What the hell do you think it is I do for a living? Go on—git.”

Maggie collected her laptop off the floor.

“Come on, Achic,” she said. “Help me get him out of here. He’s wounded.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I spent my early years living here and there with my vagabond parents but I always seem to return to my native San Francisco, a great place to be a writer. Because if you need a character for a novel you just ride public transport for half an hour. I’m also kindred spirits with a dog named Floyd, a shelter-mix who stops and stares at headlights as they pass by at night. There’s a story there, too. If only Floyd could talk. Then again, maybe not. I suspect it would be about food.

Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
One of my earliest recollections as a small boy—three or four—was watching The Postman Always Rings Twice on TV. That movie left a deep impression, especially when the lovers swim out to sea at night. Dark and moody. I thought they swam hundreds of miles. I was hooked on noir at an early age.
Q. Tell us about the cover and the inspiration for it.
A.
I wanted something eye-catching (so to speak). Something that conveys: suspense, high-tech, espionage, and more suspense! I wanted a hint of Maggie (the protagonist) and I think that's communicated by the female eye. Covers are tricky but so important. And fun. The best ones are simple.
Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
The Cain File is the first of an international espionage series with a cast of characters who work for The Agency. Maggie de la Cruz is a Forensic Accounting Agent who is often pulled into field operations. The Cain File takes place in South America. The next one finds Maggie in the Middle East.

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