Pocket Full of Posies
by Julie Coulter Bellon
All Rights Reserved
The pre-dawn air was still, as if even nature sensed the tension emanating from the group of agents and officers huddled near a police van. Bart Gutiérrez blew on his hands, the chill seeping through him. He felt keyed up, ready to get going with the high-risk arrest, but instead of doing anything productive, he was standing around impatiently while a bunch of suits took credit for staging the whole thing.
Special Response made sure everyone knew they’d scoped out the mission with high-resolution aerial photos. DEA put it out there that they’d confirmed the subject inside was, in fact, Arturo Pérez, second-in-command of the Castillo cartel. ICE and the Joint Terrorism Task Force piped in that they’d tracked him the minute his private plane had entered American air space. Only the FBI guys were silent. Bart decided he liked them.
“We going to get this show on the road sometime today?” Bart asked, unable to keep silent any longer. The Special Agent-in-Charge glared at him, but Bart held his ground, raising an eyebrow.
The SAC gave him a condescending smile. “We’d all like to thank the Hartford PD for their support work as well.” He spoke as if to a child and turned away.
Bart clenched his jaw, restraining himself from telling this guy what he could do with his thanks. He was still droning on about the prep work the Feds had done, and Bart obviously wasn’t worth his attention anymore since he was part of the support group. Who did this guy think he was, anyway? That’s what happens when federal agents are in charge of fieldwork. Everyone ends up standing around yapping instead of getting the job done.
Sergeant Frank Moline from the Hartford PD held up a hand and Bart took a step closer until he was shoulder to shoulder with his partner, Colby Black. Maybe now this op would go somewhere. Sergeant Moline was a no-nonsense guy and always got right to the point. The sky was already turning from gray to blue and Bart hoped the sergeant would be able to get things going before it was full daylight and show the Feds how it’s done.
Not that they weren’t prepared. So far, the briefing had revealed that they’d thought of every contingency. The Hostage Negotiation Team was here, sniper positions were scouted out, and a safe perimeter was established around the neighborhood. No one needed to remind them that if this high-risk takedown was successful, they would have one of the leaders of the Castillo drug cartel in custody. If it went south . . . Bart didn’t even want to go there. They needed this guy alive so they could bring down one of the largest drug suppliers in the world.
Sergeant Moline looked around the staging area, his gaze strong enough to quiet everyone before he spoke. “We’re splitting into two teams. I’ll be working with K-9, Special Response, ICE, bomb squad, and the negotiator. The rest of you will be with Lieutenant Morgan. The plan is to surround the perimeter and announce ourselves immediately prior to making entry. Arturo is violent, known to have weapons on him at all times, and he’s earned his nickname of the Assassin, so be careful. Be ready.” He held up two pictures. “Here is a picture of Arturo and . . .” He glanced over at the SAC who’d thanked Bart and gave him a little nod. “Hartford PD confirmed last night that someone else is with him.”
That deliberate dig made Bart smile. The Hartford PD weren’t slouches, no matter how small potatoes the Feds thought they were. We do our jobs and do them well, he thought. But the sergeant’s next statement made Bart jerk his head up in surprise. “The cartel’s main PR person, Lucy Aguayo is also with him. Here’s a picture of her.”
Bart squinted at the mug shot in the sergeant’s hands. Lucy? It couldn’t be her. He looked harder, trying to see any trace of the girl he’d known in Texas so long ago. The eyes were the same, large and brown, staring directly into the camera with a look of defiance. Her hair was shoulder-length, framing her heart-shaped face that wasn’t smiling. It was possible it was the Lucy he’d known, but hard to tell for sure from a mug shot. Even though that was probably the best-looking mug shot he’d ever seen in his career.
One of the Special Response guys let out a low wolf whistle. “I wouldn’t mind de-briefing her.”
Other men around him chuckled and made some crude comments.
“Why would a cartel need a PR person?” Bart asked, ignoring them.
“Nico Castillo likes to think of himself as a president of a corporation. Arturo is the vice-president, and Lucy is what Nico calls their ambassador or PR person. The reality is she handles the bribes and payoffs, makes sure everyone is obedient and helpful to Mr. Castillo, if you know what I mean,” the sergeant said. “Greases the organization’s wheels.”
The sergeant looked down at his clipboard and the guy on the other side of Bart snorted. “Probably offers ’em more than money with that face.”
Bart’s hand curled into a fist. Memories of the Lucy he knew flooded him. A skinny kid, her big brown eyes behind glasses, her long brown hair always in a ponytail. Rubbing it in his face when she’d beat him and his cousin Manny at baseball, basketball, and any other sport they could come up with. Sassy, confident, competitive. That had all changed when her father was murdered. Bart had tried to comfort her, but she’d closed off to anything and anyone, and then his family had moved away. Yet, he hadn’t forgotten her. His life had effectively fallen apart when they’d all separated.
Bart shook his head. Her family’s tragedy had steered him into law enforcement. But if it was Lucy, why would she be in Hartford? Most of all, why would she be mixed up with the Castillo cartel? He shifted his weight and pushed the memories aside to concentrate on what the sergeant was saying. He couldn’t let this get personal. The Lucy he thought he knew was in the past, part of his early memories as a teen. The one in front of him was a criminal, one they needed in custody.
Sergeant Moline gave everyone their last instructions and split them up. For the first time in ages, he and his partner Colby Black were being assigned to different locations. It was a task force so different assignments were always a possibility, but Bart had assumed they would stay together like they always did. Nothing had been routine about today, though.
Bart heard his assignment called out. He was on the entry team, while Colby was headed out with Lieutenant Morgan to one of the two sniper positions that had been scouted out. The suits huddled up again after the assignments were given and Bart scowled. The SRT probably wants credit for the scout locations, and are fighting Homeland Security for it, Bart thought. But at least I don’t have to listen to it.
Claire, their lead hostage negotiator, headed to the command center to prepare in case it escalated and became a hostage situation or the suspect didn’t come peacefully. That was almost a given knowing Arturo’s history. Bart’s stomach churned, the hostage situations over the last year popping into his mind. Some had been successful, but a few had gone bad. He tried not to dwell on those, though, and his thoughts turned back to the woman in the mug shot. What if the Lucy he knew was inside?
Colby knocked shoulders with Bart as he bent to retrieve his sniper rifle. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” He snapped his gum.
“It’s weird they’re putting you on entry team. Is that what’s bothering you?” Colby cocked an eyebrow at him when he didn’t respond right away. Another officer called to him, but Colby just gave a nod in acknowledgment. “Tell me, man.”
Bart held a quick inward debate. It was probably nothing, but Colby was his closest friend. Maybe saying it out loud would calm him down. “I think I know the PR person.” He kept his voice low, even though no one else was paying attention to the two of them. Everyone else was busy getting in position to head down to the target house.
Colby moved closer, closing the small gap between them. “Lucy Aguayo? How would you know her?”
“From when we were kids in Texas.” He tightened the Velcro on his tactical vest, trying to act more casual than he felt.
“You sure?” He waved off the officer who was calling him again.
Bart shook his head. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen her.” He noticed Sergeant Moline coming their way and he didn’t look pleased to see them still standing there. Bart took a step back.
“I hope it’s not her, for your sake, man.” Colby gave him a sympathetic look. “This is probably going to end badly. No way Arturo wants to go to prison. She’ll be right in the crossfire.”
Bart rubbed his neck. That was exactly what he was afraid of.
“Is there a problem here?” the sergeant barked as he approached.
“No sir,” Colby and Bart said simultaneously, straightening to face him.
“Why aren’t you with your teams?” he said, standing directly in front of them.
“Going there now, sir,” Bart replied. They headed in opposite directions, with Colby giving him the nod. They’d been partners so long it was easy to read his signals. Later. Stay safe.
Bart jammed his helmet on and checked his shortened assault rifle. Everything was in place. He jogged over to the small entry team waiting for him and they headed down the street to the target house, the only sound their boots on the pavement. He tried to get in the zone, to push everything aside but the mission in front of him. Keeping low, he went around to the back door they were going to use as an entry. The men were lining up and the point guy gestured to the spot next to him. Bart nodded and took his place. Hurry up and wait. That was what this seemed to be about today.
Before the signal to start the entry process came, Sergeant Moline’s voice broke the silence. He barked into the bullhorn, jolting Bart. “Arturo Pérez, the house is surrounded. Step outside, unarmed, onto the sidewalk.”
Something must have gone wrong. At the briefing the plan was to do a quick announce right before they rammed the door. Trying to contact the subject through the bullhorn meant they’d been spotted. Bart sucked in a breath, his heart rate ratcheting up a notch. This was a bad sign.
Everyone seemed to tense simultaneously, holding their breath, waiting to see if Arturo would come out of the door directly in front of them or go to the front where Sergeant Moline had another team set up. Almost immediately they heard movement from the inside and adrenaline started to pump through Bart’s veins. Maybe this won’t be so difficult after all. He was coming out. Bart took a step back.
Instead of the door opening, however, a woman screamed and something crashed just beyond the closed door. But no one came out. Bart tightened his hold on his weapon. He should have known better. Situations like this never ended easily.
The point guy pressed on his earpiece and Bart wished he’d been hooked up to comms so he could hear what was going on. Was it a hostage situation? How had Arturo spotted them? Had Claire made contact? What could Colby see? Frustration began to rise in him. He hated being cut off from his team.
Finally the point guy turned to him. “He’s threatening to kill the girl inside if we don’t back off.”
Just like they’d suspected he’d do. Bart readjusted his helmet. They had to be ready. At least it sounded like Claire had made contact if they knew what threats he was making.
The sun crept higher, as did his adrenaline level the longer they waited. Sweat beaded down his back and he welcomed the small breeze washing over him. More crashes came from within. Whatever was happening didn’t sound good for the woman inside. Yet there was no way to know from his vantage point. Harsh voices rained down on him from an open window. When one was obviously female, he breathed a tiny sigh of relief. She was still alive.
Every part of him attuned to her voice since it was the only way he had to tell if she was all right. She hurled Spanish curses at Arturo and Bart gave a small smile, raising his eyebrows when it got heated. His mother would have washed his mouth out with soap if she’d heard him talking like that. Lucy had guts, that’s for sure, to speak to Arturo “the Assassin” Pérez that way. But then again, Bart had no idea what their relationship was. For all he knew, Lucy was his girlfriend. The thought of his Lucy with someone like Pérez made his stomach curl with disgust. Arturo didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as Lucy. Let’s hope the girlfriend thing isn’t even a possibility.
The yelling stopped and silence descended. Without being on comms, he had no idea what was going on. Hopefully Claire was making headway negotiating Lucy’s release. If not . . . Bart watched the point guy like a hawk, waiting for the signal to move in. Nothing. Maybe Arturo wasn’t talking. Maybe he’d already hurt or killed Lucy. His mouth went dry and he tightened his grip on his rifle. They needed to get in there.
“Anything?” Bart whispered, breaking the silence rule.
The point guy shook his head. “We wait.”
Bart swallowed his gum that now felt like a rock in his mouth. What if this ended badly for Lucy? If it was the girl he’d known, he dreaded giving any bad news to her family. How would they even contact her loved ones after all these years? If her mother was still alive, she would never survive her daughter’s death. From what he recalled, she’d barely survived her husband’s murder.
The silence continued and Bart’s heart squeezed in the stress of the moment. Silence was almost always a bad sign.
And then they heard the gunshot.
The point guy sprang into action. “Move in! Move in!”