“Remember this, Detective Deeks… A.B.C.” When Senior Detective Carmen Ruiz caught a puzzled expression cross the younger detective’s face, she leaned in a little closer and clarified her statement. “Always. Be. Closing.” When the look on his face did not change much, she let out a slightly exasperated sigh and continued. “You have to always be selling the part that you’re playing; one moment’s slip up… letting your guard down for even an instant can be disastrous, for the operation and yourself.”
Detective Junior Grade Martin Deeks nodded in agreement. “I got it.”
Sitting next to him in the unmarked vehicle, Detective Ruiz was not convinced. “Look, don’t blow smoke up my ass, Deeks. Out here, what we do… what we get involved with, can be life or death. It could be yours, your partner’s or somebody you don’t even know. So, cut the crap!”
Easily sensing the shift in her mood, Deeks nodded and gave her a more serious response. “Sorry, didn’t mean to make light of what you’re telling me.”
Ruiz pushed her long, black hair back over her shoulder and gave him a simple shrug. “Good… and I didn’t mean to snap at you. You’re still learning what undercover work is all about, so I’ll cut you a little slack… for now.” She was impressed with his work and attitude so far. He was still behind in the learning curve but had proved to be one of the best candidates that she had trained in quite some time. “You’ve come a long way since you first volunteered for these types of assignments, but we’re getting ready to put you in the big leagues… and the stakes are about to get a lot higher and a lot more dangerous.”
She let that sink in as she turned into a rather rundown street and parked at the corner. They climbed out of the vehicle in silence and walked side-by-side over to the next block before turning into a narrow alley that ran behind the fenced in backyards of a row of simple homes. Deeks could see the terra cotta roofs over the wood fencing and wondered about the families that lived there and what they might be doing on this pleasant Saturday morning.
Ever since Deeks had made detective, he had been asking for the jobs that most of the other junior detectives shied away from… gangs, dealers, pimps… not the kind of crimes that got the attention from the higher ups or the media. But they were the ones that affected the citizens of the City of Los Angeles, the people who lived and worked in the places touched by break-ins, drug addiction, street crime and the sex trade. What they had to deal with on a day-to-day basis was not pretty, and in order to combat the rising level of criminal activity, if you wanted to make a difference, then you were going to have to get your hands dirty.
And being able to “get dirty” was something Detective Ruiz was renowned for. She had worked her way up from patrol officer to become one of the youngest females to ever make detective in the history of the LAPD and, for the past few years, had honed those skills to become the best at undercover ops in the department. Now, she was trying to pass on just a little of that knowledge to a greenhorn detective who, though very competent and skilled in his own right, spent the majority of his time driving her crazy with his smart-ass quips and somewhat laissez faire attitude.
“I just hope you’re ready… we’ve got to get going on Los Zetas as soon as possible.” Ruiz turned to face her apprentice, hooking her thumbs in her belt loops as she took in a deep breath before speaking in a hushed and low tone. “Cause that brings us to what we’re doing here today.”
She had driven them to a section of the city made of low to middle income houses cramped together on dirty streets. Most of the families that lived on the avenues worked hard to make a living but it was obvious from some of the expensive BMWs and Mercedes parked in front of cheap houses that some of the residents made their living on the shady side of the law. There were even a few places that Deeks was sure went completely over to the dark side. Ruiz currently had them standing at the edge of a dusty alleyway that ended on an even dustier street, but he could hear the sounds of the neighborhood around them; kids yelling and playing, music playing on stereos… some with heavy bass… and he could hear laughter and conversations echoing off the stuccoed walls.
“Today is going to be your first real… test… so don’t screw it up.” Ruiz patted him gently on his bicep before wrapping her hand around his arm and giving it a tight squeeze. “And I mean it Deeks… game face on from this moment or we’ll both pay for it.”
Deeks took her warning to heart and centered himself, turning hard and cold. “Gotcha boss.”
Seeing the instant change come over him, something that seemed natural for him, Ruiz gave him a soft nod of her head before turning on her own persona. “Okay Max, you just watch my back and simply do… you.”
Standing in Detective Marty Deeks’ leather boots, Max Gentry responded with a crooked smirk. “Don’t tell me how to do my job and I won’t tell you how to do yours. Got it?!” He swaggered ahead, sinking deeper into his darker personality and playing the part of a low-level enforcer for the up-and-coming drug maker, Carmen Depalma, who had spent the last few weeks introducing herself and her goods to some of the lower echelon dealers in the area, trying to find a path that would lead them to point man for the new cartel in town.
They moved casually onto the sidewalk and eased down the street beside a section of low chain-link fence that surrounded a small, non-nondescript home with several vehicles parked along the drive and even out onto the edge of the street. There was soft Latin music coming from the other side of the garage and when they walked around a tricked-out black Cadillac SUV, they came upon what looked like an innocent family cookout. There were several kids running around a large play fort in the side yard with some older siblings sitting nearby with their faces lost in the phones in their hands. The only people that seemed to notice the new arrivals were some of the adults who were lounging around the grill that was emanating a spicy aroma from whatever was sizzling under the watchful eye of the heavily tattooed man wearing a dirty, white apron. In unison, they turned to gaze at the two strangers who had appeared at the edge of the grass. Deeks began to wonder if they had wandered into the wrong yard, when the man standing at the grill cracked a crooked grin and waved them over.
“Carmen, I was beginning to wonder if you weren’t going to show up.” His tone seemed pleasant enough, but the prison tats running up his muscled arms and under his bulging t-shirt gave him a rather menacing look. “Food’s almost done, so if you can hang for a moment or two, you’ll get to enjoy my world-famous carne asada.”
That elicited a smattering of laughter from some of the people sitting nearby, especially another heavily tattooed man reclining against the edge of the wood table in the middle of the patio. “Yeah… world famous for getting your stomach pumped!” That garnered another round of laughter.
“I’ve told you before, Ramone… that was not my fault.” He lifted the lid of the grill and flipped the slabs of meat cooking there before turning to finish his retort. “That was from that cheap tequila you brought from your last trip to Mexico City.”
“Hey, that stuff wasn’t cheap and you know it!” Ramone seemed to have taken great offense to what the other man had said.
Before the back and forth could really get off the ground, one of the women sitting at the table held up a well-manicured hand and the men immediately fell into silence. “Boys, not in front of guests.” She spoke so softly that Deeks barely heard her, but her words were full of authority and strength that did not match her small stature.
The man at the grill nodded in agreement. “Yes, mi esposa… Ramone and I will behave.” That earned him a gentle nod from his wife but then he added a little on the end. “As long as he stops knocking my cooking.” When she cut him with a look, he held up his hands in meek surrender before untying his apron and handing it to a younger man sitting close by. “Here, watch the grill Joaquin while I greet our guests.”
Deeks stayed still just over Carmen’s left shoulder and watched everyone’s movements with the sharp eye of a hawk. They all seemed to remain relaxed and he guessed that it was because their host had welcomed them without any hesitation. But his hackles were still on high alert for anything out of the ordinary and he just hoped it stayed calm. He watched as the big man walked over and exchanged a cordial handshake with his partner before gently guiding them to the edge of the yard where it was a little more private and quiet.
That’s when Deeks felt the mood suddenly change and his crap-o-meter when into overdrive.
In a tone that was both cool and threatening at the same time, their host spoke so that only they could hear. “Carmen, you really have some brass cojones showing up at my home… I thought we agreed to do this elsewhere.” The man’s face and body language remained soft and calm, but his words were spat at the ground. Anyone watching, and several were, would think that this was a pleasant conversation between friends and not dangerous in the least. But Deeks knew better and was afraid this was going south before it even got off the ground.
But Carmen’s cool response allayed some of his apprehension. “Calm your jets, Jose… you’ve been checking me out, so I figured you wouldn’t mind if I did the same to you.”
“Point taken… but to show up at my house, while my kids are playing… not cool, not cool at all.” His big hands were gripping the top of the chain link fence and Deeks could see that he was struggling to contain his agitation.
And that’s when Max decided it was a good time to make himself known. “So, it’s cool to mess with Carmen but when she returns the favor, you get your panties in a wad? Sounds kinda girlie to me… Josie.”
“And you bring a smart-ass gringo with you… not too smart mi amiga.” Jose pulled himself to his full height and that put him about an inch or so taller than Deeks but he was Max now, and Max didn’t respond well to intimidation tactics.
“Listen… mi amiga…” He used the female conjugation on purpose to see how far he could push the bigger man. “We didn’t come by for a social visit… either you want our help or you don’t.”
Jose dipped his head and flexed his shoulders but was stopped short by Carmen’s soft hand landing on his forearm. From the patio, it still looked like three people having a conversation, not a hand grenade with a missing pin. “Boys… we didn’t come here to fight, we just wanted to let you know that we are interested in helping you with your product but we needed to meet on your home turf.”
Jose relaxed a little but looked at her with suspicious eyes. “Why?”
“So, we could talk without anyone getting, shall we say… overzealous.” Carmen gave his arm a light pat before pulling away. “A backyard get-together isn’t a likely place to conduct business but it does add a level of comfort and… liability.” That last word was said in a way that gave it an icy, cold feel.
Jose did not miss the implications. “You threatening my familia?”
Carmen quickly shook her head as if to quell a misunderstanding. “People like us have to be careful… we wouldn’t want to have to explain some heinous act to our children… we keep them safe, not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well.”
Jose glanced quickly over to where his kids were playing and nodded in agreement. “Yes, we do.” He took a deep breath and blew it out quickly, his friendly demeanor from earlier returning. “So, to business then… does this visit mean that you have decided to come to work for me?”
Carmen let out a gentle laugh that sounded like she had just heard a good joke. “Ahhh, not exactly. You see, I am willing to come to work with you, not for you.”
“And what the hell does that mean?!” Jose stayed relaxed but his words were hard.
“What it means is that I get twenty percent of the final with $50,000 a kilo up front.” Carmen spoke as if she were rattling off a grocery list. “I acquire my own ingredients, I have my own kitchen that only I run… we bring the product to you, no micromanaging. If you have a problem, you address it with me and we clear it up or we stop doing business. If you aren’t satisfied with my product, I’ll make it right but if you fail to pay me… then we will have a problem.”
Jose let a laugh of his own. “You think you can walk in here and dictate terms… to me!”
Carmen turned and rested against the edge of the fence, so she could watch both Jose and the people in the yard behind him. “Look, I know you lost Tuco when he blew up his own lab using substandard ingredients, I know that Little Juan is doing a hard fifteen to twenty for selling on the side to that chica from the DEA, and I know that the last cook you had gave you product that put fifty people in the freaking emergency room and double that into the ground.”
Carmen paused to let her words sink in before she continued in her soothing voice. “So, you can keep scraping along the bottom trying to find a cook that can make product that won’t kill everyone that uses it… or you can hire me on as your chef and I will whip up the best stuff anyone has ever used and that will keep them coming back for more… at $50 a pop.”
Jose joined her against the fence, folding his thick arms across his wide chest as he thought about the predicament he was in and the solution that had suddenly appeared. After a few more moments, when he did actually scratch his head, he held up three fingers on his left hand. “Thirty thousand a kilo.”
Carmen was not impressed. “Fifty thousand gets you the best… the ingredients aren’t cheap nor are they easy to come by. If you pay less, I’ll get you what you want but it will be made with inferior grade items and the outcome will just be more dead users and less demand for your shitty stuff.”
“Forty thousand… I have to make a profit.”
Carmen groaned deep in her chest. “If you can’t make a profit off of fifty thousand a kilo, then maybe we should take our product where they know what they’re doing.” She pushed herself off the fence and started walking back toward the sidewalk. “Come on, Max… we’re leaving.”
Deeks paused a moment to scan both Jose and the yard full of people behind him before turning slowing to follow behind his partner. They had taken only a few steps before Jose called out in a hushed whisper. “Last offer… forty-five.”
Carmen slowed her pace and then slowly turned to face the big man once more. The expression on her face gave away nothing about her thoughts but it appeared that she was having an internal debate, doing some quick math in her head before giving Jose a friendly smile and offering him her hand. “Okay… forty-five.”
And even though he didn’t show it, Deeks was relieved the deal was done as he watched Jose give Carmen’s hand a firm shake. Everything had returned to a quiet calm but then Jose cut his eyes to Max and gave him the once over. “But you have yet to introduce your friend here.” Jose’s large hand came up once more and hovered in the air between the two men. “Max, right?”
Deeks hesitated for a moment, letting the tension return before finally accepting the offered hand and giving it a hard shake before dropping it quickly. It was meant to keep an air of indifference while adding a bit of arrogance as well. “Charmed, I’m sure.”
Carmen stepped in when she saw that Max was heading back to Snarkville. “Max is my trusted right arm. He watches my back and keeps everyone around me… honest.”
Jose nodded and seemed to appreciate the arrangement. “Would you two like to join us? You are more than welcome to stay.” The words sounded polite and cordial, but the look in Jose’s eyes sent a clear warning that they were not welcome around his family. And most of it was directed at Max, who continually exuded an aura of menace that seemed directed at, well… everyone.
“Sorry, but I was one of those kids in school who was constantly told that I didn’t get along well with others… and I guess I never grew out of it.” Max said it like he was joking but the ice in his eyes indicated that he meant what he had said. “Rain check?” He added that last part just to be an ass.
Jose took it all in stride. “Sure… come back anytime.”
Carmen gave Jose a final nod as the two of them began to turn away. “You know how to get in touch with me. I begin as soon as you make your first deposit and order.”
Jose waved to them as they parted and when they were almost out of earshot, they heard his final comment. “You’ll be hearing from me… soon.”
Deeks tried to disregard the way the man’s statement sent a cold shiver up his spine but he couldn’t make it go away completely. As they walked in silence down the sidewalk back to where they had parked, neither Deeks nor his persona named Max could shake the feeling that something just was not right.
No. Not right at all.
Later that afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to set, Deeks was walking back to his apartment after catching a few waves down at one of his favorite surfing locales. He felt pretty good about how he had handled the little meeting with Jose and during their debrief, Carmen had paid him a few compliments… something that she rarely did. She said that he had given off just the right amount of “Bad Ass” vibe without inadvertently provoking a confrontation, which is what you sometimes needed to do, depending on who you were dealing with. Certain situations may call for Max to be cold and aloof while others may require him to be a little more pliable… it would all depend on the situation and where you found yourself. But you wouldn’t know until you were already there and if you weren’t able to adapt, you could blow the meeting or even the entire op.
Carmen had given her approval of Max Gentry’s tough guy attitude and told him to make that his “go to” mask when he was sent deep undercover. She said that he seemed to slip into the alter-ego with little trouble and that’s what you wanted in a fake persona… it had to have the air of truth about it to really work and Deeks had made everyone, herself included, believe. They did not get too deep about where Max had come from, he just said it was a character he had played back in his drama classes at college. Carmen had not pressed the issue and Deeks had not volunteered anything more. For that, he was relieved.
During his walk, he began to wonder what their next steps with Jose would be. They had set a price on the kilos to be made and delivered but the rules regulating undercover operations were clear: you still could not break the law, even when trying to nail a high-level dealer in order to keep his poison off the streets. They would have to find a way for Jose to implicate himself and his crew without crossing a line they couldn’t recover from. It would probably be a matter of tricking Jose into accepting a drug shipment himself or catching him implicating himself on tape.
All these thoughts rambled along in his mind as he walked slowly up the sidewalk as the seagulls called out to him from where he could still hear the waves crashing onto the sand. He paused next to a tall palm tree and let the soft, warm California breeze dry his wet hair. He was just turning to complete his trek home when he heard screeching brakes and tires skidding across asphalt. His cop defenses kicked into gear but before he could even formulate a strike, he found himself being bundled into a nondescript cargo van by two large men with arms like tree trunks. He started to call out for aid but someone quickly covered his head with some kind of bag and his world went dark. He kicked out with his legs that were still free, making contact with one of his assailants who grunted out in pain.
Then something round and cold was pressed into the back of his skull and a man with a deep voice spoke close to his ear. “Keep struggling ese… and I’ll turn your head into a canoe.” The barrel was pushed hard enough into his skull that Deeks saw dots of light behind his closed eyes causing him to relax his arms and legs, allowing his captors to wrestle him all the way to the floor where they quickly secured his hands and ankles with heavy zip ties. As they tied a gag against his mouth, he felt the van begin to move down the street and he sent up a quick prayer that maybe someone saw everything and was, at that moment, calling for aid.
As the van bumped along rough roads, Deeks tried his best to remember all the little details that might help him find his way back to wherever they were taking him… if he survived. But whoever was driving apparently knew what they were doing because they reversed themselves so many times that Deeks had no idea what direction they were headed. He was pretty sure that they spent several minutes just driving around in circles until he finally just gave up and let them take him wherever they wanted.
After traveling for approximately twenty minutes, the van took some sharp turns and then came to a sudden stop. Deeks began to count the moments he feared might be his last as he was roughly manhandled up and across a concrete floor. He still couldn’t see anything but he could smell the heavy scent of fuel and oil, so he guessed he was in some warehouse, probably one of the hundreds of abandoned ones that dotted the industrial areas of Los Angeles. He was slammed down into a hard chair and his hands and ankles were quickly secured in place so that he could barely move. The gag was pulled away but he knew that calling out for help would be useless.
Deeks could hear movement around him but no one spoke loud enough for him to hear them. He heard the scraping of metal across the floor and then… silence. It was quite eerie and unsettling to be blind, restrained and seemingly alone. He strained his ears to hear anything but all he picked up was the distant sound of dripping water. After several minutes, he wondered if he was truly alone.
“Hey, anyone there?”
Nothing but the dripping water.
Deeks stuck out his tongue, trying to pull some of the mask’s fabric to his teeth where he may be able to pull it free. But it tasted terrible and he choked and sputtered it away from his mouth. “Jeez… you guys might want to wash that thing every once in a while. It’s starting to taste like ass.”
Still, not a sound.
“So, are you just going to leave me here tied to this chair? Maybe let the rats eat me?” Deeks hoped they were there, just messing with him. “You know, I knew I’d die in a really funky way, but eaten by rats wasn’t one of them. Parachute not opening, caught in the gears of a combine… nuts bitten off by a Rottweiler, now that’s a way to die!”
Out of the darkness, someone spoke. “Good, at least now we know you’re a talker.” There were footsteps from behind him as someone moved closer. “That’ll make all of this much easier.” The voice was familiar and it clicked in Deeks’ memory just as the dark hood was yanked off of his head and he found himself face to face with…
“Ramone?! What the hell?!”
Ramone Chuchillo was so close, Deeks could feel his breath on his skin and it was immediately unnerving. He reached up and patted Deeks gently on the cheek. “Relax ese… I get paid very well to make sure nothing dangerous gets too close to my boss, so we have to check you out.”
Deeks slipped into Max like sliding into a second skin. “You could have just asked nicely, jackass.”
“And where would the fun be in that?” It was like conversing with a serpent. “It’ll be very simple: I ask you some questions, you answer. If I like your answers, we’ll leave and share a cerveza.”
“And if you don’t like my answers?”
The way the man’s lips curled back to reveal his teeth was like a shark smiling at you right before it bit into your flesh. “Then, mi amigo… I have one in your memory.”
Jose picked up a small wooden chair and placed it directly in front of the seated detective and calmly pulled a small note pad from his jacket and began to flip a few pages. “I took notes while you and Carmen were speaking to Jose… and some things stood out that we need some clarification.”
Max let out a long dramatic sigh. “Okay, you got me… I’ll confess.”
This seemed to catch the other man slightly off-guard. “Please, do tell.”
Max leaned forward as much as his restraints would allow, causing Ramone to mirror his movements. After pausing for emphasis, he chuckled. “My dick is bigger than yours. There, I said it… and yes I am proud of that fact…” He did not get to finish as Ramone’s open right hand caught him across his mouth. Max spit and sputtered a bit at the taste and feel of blood from a now split lip. “And now I know you hit like a girl… no, wait… you slap like one.”
The next hit was not a slap but a big, meaty fist delivered directly into the center of Max’s sternum, knocking the air right out of his lungs and making him gasp to catch his breath. When he could finally speak, Max’s words came out choked and hoarse. “Good… one.”
Ramone leaned back in his seat, his little notebook opened to a particular page. “Shall we get on with this or do you want to continue to make introductions?” When all that Max could do was grunt, the big man nodded. “Very well… first question: at the cookout, you were wearing a semi-auto Beretta 92S in 9 mm. Why?”
“I picked it up from your mother’s nightstand when I left her bed the other day… I guess you can have it back if she misses it… or I can drop it off the next time I drop by.”
This actually elicited a dry chuckle from the man sitting across from him. “My mother shoots a Glock 22, but I’ll tell her about your concern.”
Max laughed dryly at the man’s retort but gasped out loud when he found that Ramone had deftly grabbed his right hand and was masterfully forcing his fingers apart. Max tried to hold his hand in a tight fist, but Ramone expertly singled out his right index finger and forced it out straight from the others. Max watched as Ramone produced a hooked blade from somewhere and placed the cutting edge against the soft skin under the knuckle. “When I cut off this finger, you’ll have a little trouble pulling a trigger ever again.”
Max felt the cold edge of the blade press against his skin. “Hey… hey man! Be cool!”
Ramone just smiled. “So, why the Beretta? That’s a cop gun, what the hell are you doing carrying a cop gun… unless…” More pressure and Max thought he must be bleeding by now.”
“I’m no cop, dude… go easy, that’s my good hand!”
The next words were like a hiss. “Not anymore.”
“I took it off an undercover cop I knocked off a few years ago.” Max gave him a nugget of truth in the lie; it was something that made it a bit more believable. “He was about to bust me for dealing and I couldn’t go back to the joint.”
Ramone seemed to consider the explanation for a moment before pulling the knife back, but only slightly. “And this dead cop gotta name?”
Max knew that this would be verified so he played it out as best he could. “Dude, I didn’t check his wallet… I think he said his name was Goedde… but that’s all I’ve got.” There had been a Detective Mark Goedde, killed by a punk over an ounce of coke and five dime bags of weed. Patrolman Martin Deeks had been on the honor guard at the man’s funeral.
The truth in the story must have been heard, because Ramone pulled back his hand and took the blade with it. “Okay, you get a pass on that one… but now we’ve got to step this up, I’ve got a hot date tonight and I’ll need some time to clean up after.”
Max asked even though he did not really want an answer. “After… what?”
Ramone stood up from his seat, tucking the note pad away as he moved. “The main event.” That’s when Max could hear something moving on squeaky wheels, coming closer from behind but he could not turn his head far enough to see. “Ah, our guest of honor is here.” A cold stone formed in the pit of Max’s stomach as the squeaking grew closer and when the source of the sound finally came into view, his heart fell.
Carmen was being wheeled into position a few yards away. She was strapped into an old wheelchair, her arms and legs bound and a gag firmly in place over her mouth. Max struggled against his restraints when he finally saw her face, a face that looked like it had been used as a punching bag by Mike Tyson. Blood dripped from under the gag and both eyes were in various stages of black, blue and purple. Then he saw it… her right hand was crudely bandaged and coated in bright red blood where her right index finger should have been.
The rage came unchecked. “You BASTARDS!” He pushed against the ties holding him down to the point of pain, but they held fast. “I’ll kill all of you, I swear… I’ll kill you all!” He roared out his threats but they were as effective as his struggles to free himself.
Carmen whimpered behind her gag when she saw Max tied up in front of her, her eyes wet with tears and filled with pain. Her clothes were torn and there were other cuts and bruises visible along her arms and across her chest. And Max was sure that if she was not restrained, she would simply tumble to the floor. His heart broke for her and his mind raced at how they were going to get out of this alive. But there was a dark part of him that could only focus on the ways he wanted to make the ones who had done this pay… and none of it involved the law. “I’m going to cut out your heart and feed it to a mangy dog. Let… her… go!”
Ramone moved to stand behind Carmen, the ugly knife coming up to caress her cheek. “Not until I cut off her face.” Max could not watch, so he slammed his eyes closed and turned his head away at her blood curdling scream. Suddenly, his head was grabbed from behind and was wrenched back to face the struggling woman in the wheelchair. Against his own will, his eyes slipped open but he could not see Carmen as Ramone was now standing in front of her, blocking his view. But he could see her legs twitching and kicking as she struggled against the pain. He did not know whether the rage boiling in him came from Max or Deeks. It really didn’t matter, these people would pay, he would burn down their world, destroy everything that they cared about… no pity and no remorse.
“Watch my friend…” It was Jose’s voice at his ear as he forced his head to remain facing the struggling woman. “Watch what we do to those who threaten us. Her answers were not as good as yours.”
Max found that he could no longer speak as he watched Ramone step back to admire his handiwork, wiping the blade on Carmen’s twitching thigh. “So sad… she was actually quite beautiful.” Max could not see her face as her head was drooped forward but he could see the dripping blood falling onto her dirty blouse.
Jose released Max’s head and stepped around to the front. “I know you enjoy your work Ramone, but we have a schedule to keep… hurry this along.”
“Yes, of course.” He stepped behind the wheelchair and picked up a container that Max could not quite make out.
Then Jose moved right in front of him and slapped him hard across his face, drawing Max’s attention back to him. “Okay, gringo… welcome to the final round… one last question and we’ll be done.”
“Screw you blue, asshole!”
Jose’s smile was calm and amused. “Still fighting it… okay, so be it. Here’s what happened when we interviewed your friend over there earlier this evening.” He reached into his inside coat pocket and pulled a tiny bundle that was stained red. “You see, right when Ramone was removing her finger, she admitted that she was a cop… but we need to know if you’re one too.” He slowly unwrapped the hidden object but Max didn’t have to look to know what it was. Jose chuckled when he let it fall to land in Max’s lap, rolling down between his legs. “Why don’t you hold onto that for her… she’s not going to need it any longer.”
Max’s heart turned to ice within his chest. His mind was overwhelmed by what was now transpiring right in front of him. It all had to be a bad dream; maybe he hit his head on his surfboard and was lying on the sand with this crazy nightmare playing in his unconscious mind. But the pain was real, the groans coming from his partner a few yards away were real… and he knew that even if he confessed and said exactly what these men wanted to hear, the two of them were dead anyway.
“Go fuck yourself… I ain’t no cop!”
Jose’s smile did not fade even when he turned to Ramone. “Do it.”
Max craned his neck to see what was happening and then wished he had not. The container that Ramone had in his hands became clear as he began to pour the contents of the gas can over Carmen’s bloodied body. When the liquid began to ebb over her and she realized what it was, her groans turned into muffled screams as she began to thrash against the unforgiving restraints. Her efforts were all in vain as Ramone finally finished and took several steps back, careful not to stand to close to the volatile liquid and vapor cloud. He reached into his back pocket and pulled into view a simple road flare that he quickly ignited.
Max choked on his own tears, knowing what was about to happen. He could not think of anything to say to make all of this stop and wanted the world to just end at that moment, before he truly lost his mind. Jose’s slap brought him back to the present. “Are you a cop like this whore?!” Another slap. “Tell me… NOW! Or we’ll set her on fire and you can watch her burn!”
“She’ll smell really good.” Ramone was waving the flare around in the air, leaving a trail of swirling smoke dancing in the darkness.
That made something inside of Deeks click. It went deeper than Max, it went right into the very heart of who he was and who he wanted to be. If he was going to die, he would do it on his terms, with no regrets… and even in the eternity that was waiting for him, he would never regret betraying anyone this way. So, he took a deep breath, feeling his entire body relax as the tension evaporated in an instant.
“You have to believe me… I’m no cop.”
The words were spoken so softly, Jose almost didn’t hear them. “Very well… I believe you.” He slowly raised his hand and pointed to Carmen’s struggling form. “But as for your friend…”
Deeks watched in horror as Ramone cocked his arm and tossed the lit flare toward the puddle of gasoline under Carmen’s chair. He saw it flip end over end a few times before landing on the wet concrete where it…
…sputtered and died. There was no fireball, no enveloping flames. Just a quiet sizzle as it sputtered for a few seconds and then went out. Deeks was trying to understand what exactly had just happened, if the fates had really been so kind as to undo Jose’s deadly plan, when he saw Carmen reach up and calmly untie her gag.
“Okay guys, get me the hell out of the chair… my ass is wet.”
Deeks watched as Ramone reached down and swiftly untied his partner who was removing her own restraints and easing up from the chair once she was free. If he had been confused about what was happening before, now he was totally lost. Jose stepped in front of him and began to cut lose the zip ties at his feet. “Hey bud, before I free your hands, you’re not going to hit me, are you?”
“Wha… what… what the hell is going on?”
Jose stepped back and a smiling Carmen was suddenly kneeling on the floor in front of him. “Deeks… Martin… look at me.” He glanced up into her bloodied face that was covered in purple bruises. “Just listen. You passed the final test partner… you made it.”
Deeks just shook his head, still unable to grasp exactly what was happening. “But your face… your finger… the gas…”
Carmen gently patted his leg. “Don’t worry about my face…” she ran a hand across the dark bruises, wiping them away. “Makeup. The gas was water, had to be… the flare was real.” She pointed over to Ramone who was busy collecting the empty gas can, the chair and the burned-out road flare. She raised her hand up in front of his face and wiggled all of her fingers. “And the finger….”
“Hot dog…” Jose was finishing cutting away the last of Deeks’ restraints. “Took it out of the fridge myself.”
When he was finally free, Deeks shot up and out of the chair, his body taking an aggressive fighting stance. Carmen reacted immediately, jumping up to stand between her partner and Jose who was quickly backing away, his hands up in mild surrender.
“Easy man… go easy.”
Deeks still looked like he was ready to fight but Carmen’s calm voice was slowly breaking through. “Hey Martin, easy there partner… we’re all friends here. Shhhhh… breathe partner… that’s it… breathe.”
It took a moment for the reality to finally sink in, that Jose and Ramone were not his enemy and that Carmen was, in fact, in good shape. Deeks’ breathing began to slow to a more regular rate and he started to unclench his fists, allowing his body to uncoil. “We’re good… yeah… we’re good.”
“Take a breath partner… let it out… cool it down.” Carmen’s face openly showed her concern for her friend as she continued to speak soothingly to him, hoping his mind would finally catch up to how the situation had played out. “Yes, this was all a setup; the last test to see if you could truly handle an operation that went south.”
Deeks took a few more deep breaths, letting all that had happened finally wash over him. “So, I guess these two aren’t part of Los Zetas?”
Carmen gave him a quick shake of her head along with a soft smile. “No, they aren’t… this is Lieutenant Jose Calderon and Detective Ramone Villegas from the Van Nuys division. Jose was my training officer when I started undercover, back in the day.”
That elicited a slight chuckle from the man standing just a few feet away. “Back in the day? You make me sound like a dinosaur. I taught you everything you know.”
“Yeah, right.” Carmen gave him a crooked grin before turning back to her partner who was wiping some of the blood from his chin. “Sorry about the rough stuff, but we had to make this as real as possible.”
Ramone stepped up and handed Deeks an ice pack that he had pulled from a first aid kit. “I know it sucked, but when you go under, you can expect a lot worse.”
Nodding in agreement, Jose patted Deeks gently on the back. “I’d listen to Ramone if I were you. Everything we just did: the snatch off the street, the chair, the knife, the finger, the wheelchair, the gas… that’s stuff we’ve seen done to real people out there for real.” He paused to let that sink in before he continued. “And you aced it my friend. You’ve got some good skills and I can’t wait to see what you can do.”
They all seemed to be praising his reaction to the “test”, so when Deeks suddenly dropped his shoulders and started to walk off toward the far end of the warehouse, it caught them all off guard.
Carmen waved off the other two men and quickly followed after her wayward partner. “Just give us a few minutes guys… This is a lot to digest all at once.” She quickly caught up with him but he didn’t seem intent on stopping; he just plowed straight ahead as if he was doing his best to put distance between him and the spot where he had watched his partner get cut up. Even though it was all faked, it apparently hit something deep inside that he was wrestling with and needed action to work it out.
After they were well out of hearing range of the others, Carmen reached out and caught him by the arm. She held on tight when he tried to yank free, grabbing his other arm when he spun to face her. “Hey! Look, I get it… That was rough, but you did it Deeks! I couldn’t be more proud of you!”
The look of anguish that passed over his face caused her to choke back her words. “Don’t be!”
“Don’t be what?”
Deeks deflated right in front of her and Carmen could feel the internal struggle that was going on behind those Pacific Blue eyes. “Don’t be proud of me! I can’t do this!”
“Yes, you can!” When she saw that he wasn’t listening, Carmen dropped his arms and cocked a thumb back to where Jose and Ramone were cleaning up the mess they had left behind. “Do you want to know what they put me through when it was my turn in the chair?” She could see that this had finally caught his attention so she pressed onward. “They had me strapped in that wheel chair and pushed me up to a table with a food blender and my partner. They made me think they were forcing his hand into the blades… they used tomatoes and chicken bones… I could hear the bones and flesh getting torn apart and it almost made me lose my mind.”
Deeks felt his stomach turn over on itself, knowing how that must have felt. “I know… I get it… but it’s not about how it made me feel, it’s about what it made me want to do!”
Then she spoke the words that he had spoken earlier. “I wanted them dead. I wanted to rip out their eyes and beat them to death while they screamed. I wanted to destroy everything that they loved… Does that sound familiar?”
Standing in front of his partner, Deeks was simply stunned at her confession. “You think you’re immune to the human response of wanting to hurt those who are hurting you or hurting someone you care about? Welcome to the club, buddy-o!”
“But I didn’t care about the law anymore, I would have done anything to make them hurt for what they were doing to you!” The tears were in his eyes but he refused to let them fall.
Carmen patted him tenderly in the center of his chest. “And that’s what makes you a great partner.”
“Wanting to break the law?”
Carmen was smiling as she shook her head. “No… for wanting to protect me.”
“And what happens if I end up in a situation where I can’t protect my partner?” The words were full of anguish and pain.
Knowing that this battle was being fought within the man in front of her, Carmen pressed him for the truth. “I’ve watched you over the last few months we’ve worked together and you have a protective streak a mile wide. I know you hate to see people around you hurt… and you were that way before you became a cop… weren’t you?”
That stopped him cold. Here they were, at the truth that he had kept secret for far too long, so he let it go.
“I grew up having to protect my mom.”
Carmen knew this wasn’t easy but they had to work this out before they could move on. “From whom?”
Deeks gave her a simple shrug of his shoulders. “My dad.”
That explained a lot.
“So, that’s why you hate to see anything bad happen to anyone… especially women.” Carmen caught his surprised expression at her keen observation. “Come on, Deeks… I’m a detective, a pretty good one, if I do say so myself. I’ve watched you operate over the past few weeks and it was fairly obvious.”
“But isn’t that a liability in what we do?”
She was shaking her head before he could finish. “It can be, but only if you let it.”
“Well, that just makes perfect sense.”
“Listen, this kind of police work is harder than anything you will ever do. Sometimes., you’ll have to become the very thing that you fighting in order to defeat them.” She saw hie eyes begin to glaze over and she knew he was drifting again. “Hey, let me be honest with you… I’ve been doing this for a while and I’ve worked with some really scary operators who can become some truly freaky individuals when they go under… but your Max Gentry truly scares the ever-loving crap out of me.”
Deeks gave her a very skeptical look so she clarified before he could argue. “The guys with the tree trunk arms and tats out the wazoo are scary looking and the women with the seductive charms are all dangerous… but the ones who can creep you out with a simple look or they disarm you with a confident smirk, those are the truly dangerous ones.” She leaned forward and poked him in the center of his chest that still ached from Ramone’s punch. “And Max Gentry is one of the most terrifying personalities that I have ever had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting. I’m just glad that deep down he is really a good guy… if he wasn’t, we’d all be pretty screwed.”
“It’s just… I don’t know if I can do this kind of work… if a woman is involved.” After he said it, he thought he might have offended her, so Deeks quickly amended his statement. “It’s not that I doubt you or any other female cop’s abilities… it’s me… I doubt myself.”
“But I’ve already told you…”
Deeks quickly held up a hand to stop her. “I know what you said, and thanks… but what happens when this is for real and not just some test?”
This time, Carmen cut him off. “What if this had been real, Deeks? What if those two had really set me on fire and made you watch?”
“I would have lost my mind.”
“No, no you wouldn’t” Carmen knew he was going to argue, so she just plowed on regardless. “You became a cop to serve and protect, I’ve seen that first hand. You would do anything to keep the crap that Los Zetas pushes from the kids they like to string out. You would play the scenario out to its end, no matter the cost… to protect the ones who can’t protect themselves. Just like I would.”
The words took a few moments to finally sink in, but they eventually found their way into Deeks’ heart. Yes, he would have played this out, like he had when they were testing him, no matter the cost, to him or anyone else. Carmen had been right; he had become a cop to protect and to serve, and he would sacrifice himself to do that. But there was a part of him that would always struggle if a female was involved.
“Look, I know you’re going to wrestle with this, and who knows, maybe out there, somewhere, is some bad ass female that will be able to break that hesitation in your heart.” Carmen once again patted him gently on the arm. “Someone that can show you just what a good man you really are. In the meantime, take your time, master your trade, especially that Max character… and just be the best damn cop you can be.”
Deeks nodded along with her, not so much in agreement with her assessment of his abilities, but in the suggestion to take his time and master his undercover skills before teaming up with a female. Maybe one day he would be able to conquer his fear of being unable to help when someone he cared about was hurt for the sake of the mission or maybe he would just never allow himself to be found in that position in the first place. This was something he would discuss with Lieutenant Bates when he reported back to the precinct. If he couldn’t make peace with it, maybe he would just have to swear off female partners for the time being and learn to work on his own for a while.
At least, until some bad ass woman came along who could help him overcome the overwhelming pain of failure.
Carmen nodded toward the guys who were waiting patiently for them. “Come on, beers are on Ramone and Jose owes us one hell of a dinner after all that crap.”
Deeks chuckled dryly to himself. “He owes us more than just dinner.”
“And there you are partner.” Carmen knew that he would be alright, he just had to find his own footing in this crazy job that they did. She had had to find her own many years ago and was confident that he would not let her, or himself, down. When he did finally find his niche and that bad ass partner, she would definitely have to meet that woman; she would have to be something special.
From across the room, Ramone watched as the man and woman began to finally work their way back to join them but when he turned to his partner, he saw that Jose was finishing up a phone call. “Telling your wife that you’re going to be late because you’re taking us all out to dinner?”
Jose just shook his head. “Nah, did that before we even started this afternoon.”
It took only a second for Ramone to put it all together who his friend had called. “You called that little CIA spook lady again, didn’t you?”
The big Hispanic detective finished tucking his phone into his pocket. “That woman’s always pestering me about any new, up and coming talent… and, you have to admit, you were impressed too.”
Ramone nodded in agreement. “Yeah, not bad, not bad at all. What’s her name again? Hannah? Hattie? Helen?”
“Geez… how are such a good detective when you’re so bad with names.” Jose turned to the side so that there was no way Deeks or Carmen would overhear.
“Her name is Henrietta… Henrietta Lange.”