San Bernardino County
Six Years Earlier
What the hell is she doing here? From his beat-up, unmarked car, Dylan O’Keefe squinted into the night, his eyes narrowing on a figure darting through the shadows of the empty lot across the street. Watery blue light from a single streetlamp at the corner of the street illuminated the weed-choked space where a couple of abandoned vehicles had been left to rust, and the air was thick, smells of exhaust and wood smoke heavy in the air, though no traffic was visible, no fires burning.
But there had been in this small town in the foothills of the mountains, and recently, as evidenced by the cluster of four-wheel-drive units parked near the De Maestro hideout.
Though it was December, the terrain was dusty, a hardscrabble landscape for what was essentially a ghost town, abandoned for the most part after the gold in the surrounding hills had been depleted a hundred years before. Only a handful of residents called this area home, but it was obvious someone resided in the dirty bungalow with its sagging tile roof and stained stucco walls. The porch had rotted and been repaired, and the stuff in the yard, the kids’ toys and Christmas decor, was, no doubt, part of the facade, an attempt to make the house fit into the neighborhood, to look “lived in” by a family.
All a lie.
And about to come crashing down.
Except that now, in the middle of the stakeout—an effort to en sure that Alberto De Maestro was, indeed, within the dingy walls—a dark figure was slinking through the shadows, a figure he’d recognize anywhere as Detective Selena Alvarez. Everything they’d worked for, the operation that had been in play for sixteen months, was suddenly about to go sideways.
Damn it! “You see her?” he whispered to his partner.
“Mmmhmmm.” Rico, forever noncommittal, was nodding slowly, his fleshy face sweating in the lamplight, his eyes focused in the direction of the empty lot.
“She can’t be here!”
“Leave it be.” But even Rico was at attention as Selena crossed the sagging fence between the two lots, now on De Maestro’s property with its ramshackle bungalow, shades drawn, the yard littered with toys and Christmas decorations, most of which had lights that had burned out. Even the string wound around the base of the single palm tree outside was missing bulbs.
All part of a front anyway.
O’Keefe reached up, turned off the interior light and opened the passenger door.
“Wait! What’re you doing?” Rico demanded.
O’Keefe didn’t wait for recriminations or arguments. He’d already landed on the cracked cement, his service weapon drawn. He had to get to her, to call her back.
This was all wrong.
If De Maestro got wind that she was outside . . . Silently he crossed the street, was aware of a breeze rolling over the asphalt, kicking up dry leaves and a rustling plastic bag that skated past a few parked cars. A dog, penned in the yard, hidden in the night, started barking wildly.
Oh, God, no!
Still Alvarez moved forward.
Don’t! he silently screamed, fear curdling inside him. What was she thinking? Why was she here? The dog began to howl. Get back! This is nuts—
Blam! A side door flew open.
“Shut up!” a man yelled from the doorway, his lean body in silhouette, a handgun visible. Alberto De Maestro. Target of the sting.
Linchpin of the De Maestro drug cartel. Jesus, God! He was right there!
No! No! No!
O’Keefe’s heart pounded in his ears.
Another man appeared in the doorway, obviously trying to talk some sense into De Maestro, to pull him inside, but the bigger man was having none of it, and as the dog quieted and somewhere in the distance a siren wailed, he turned, looking straight at Alvarez.
A smile as evil as all of hell curved his lips, showing off white teeth as he raised his gun. “Perra,” he said, aiming, his voice slurred.
Running now, his weapon raised, O’Keefe yelled, “Drop it! Police! Policia! Alberto De Maestro, drop your weapon!”
“Fuck off!” Spinning agilely, De Maestro turned his gun on O’Keefe. His malicious grin widened. The devil himself. “Feliz Navidad, bastardo!”
With that, he pulled the trigger.