“A gritty FBI Thriller with jaw-dropping twists. King’s portrayal of the convoluted world of cross-border criminality, politics and business feels completely fresh.” — BestThrillers.com
“An intriguing mystery novel that explores crime near the border and the implications of greed.” — Kirkus Reviews
A light breeze blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico was about the only thing keeping most Houstonians from sweating like stevedores working the steamy docks of Kolkata.
Juan Carlos Alonso—people usually just called him Pepe—had been looking forward to the weekend. A minor official assigned to the Mexican Consulate in H-Town, he enjoyed a lifestyle clearly not supported by his modest salary as a public servant.
Most people dismissed him as being an unserious man, blessed at birth to lead a charmed but inconsequential life. Then there were the people who knew him best.
Despite it being early on a Friday afternoon, he had already left his office in the newly opened Consulate building on Richmond Avenue in the Westchase area of Houston. He wanted to get a jumpstart on what promised to be a weekend to remember.
Most junior consular officials were not normally afforded the privilege of setting their own hours…unless, that is, their name happened to be Pepe Alonso. To say that he came from a privileged background would be like saying the sun is warm.
One story had it that his family owned an international shipping empire that his great grandfather had built in the aftermath of the second world war. Another was that his father had created a technology company that his older brother currently ran.
Heck, some even joked that his family might be criminal royalty.
Nobody really knew for sure. Perhaps they were all true. Perhaps not.
The one thing everyone did know, though, was that he had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and people who met that description were never to be taken lightly, regardless of all outward appearances.
As he maneuvered his yellow SF90 Spider Ferrari down the Westpark Tollway toward Interstate 69, whipping in and out of the pre-rush hour traffic, Pepe’s thoughts turned to Suzy, the petite redhead he had met several weeks earlier.
In his mind, it had been love at first sight, or at least as close to love as a self-centered twenty-three-year-old guy could get. He did not know if this was a forever kind of love, but he was certain it would last at least a month, maybe even two.
His wavy auburn hair whipped around in the strong wind as he tried to keep the open-air convertible below eighty. He glanced down at the passenger footwell to ensure his white straw Stetson was still snug and secure where he had placed it.
Using his thumb, he increased the volume on the convertible’s JBL stereo, which was playing “I Can’t Breathe,” a country song by Parker McCollum. Two weekends earlier, on their first date, he and Suzy had driven up to The Woodlands to hear him perform live in concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
As he sang along with the ballad’s soulful refrain—at the top of his lungs—a black German Shepherd mix hanging its head out the side window of the pickup truck in the next lane gave him a quizzical look.
He and Suzy had gone out a few times since the concert, and after much persistence on his part, she had finally agreed to spend the coming weekend with him at his beach house in the historic district of Galveston.
Wild fantasies about the coming weekend consumed his every thought.
His supervisors at the Consulate agreed that Pepe’s future was bright in the diplomatic corps, mainly because of his family’s wealth and influence.
It certainly was not because of his work ethic because he had not yet developed one. However, his easy-going personality and smile made it impossible for people not to like him.
In fact, Pepe assumed that everyone liked him because…well, because all his life, people had been solicitous toward him. It never occurred to him that his treatment by others was because of who he was, or more precisely, who his family was. Of course, he would learn the lesson eventually, but just not now. Now was his time to enjoy life, to have fun, to indulge his every whim.
He was twenty-three, and the world was his oyster.
He could see the growing red line of brake lights up ahead as the traffic on the freeway began to back up.
Probably an accident, he thought as he tapped his brakes and cautiously merged over into the right lane. I think I’d better take the Montrose Boulevard exit.
As he guided his Ferrari off the highway, he paid no attention to the silver pickup truck following him two vehicles back.
* * * * *
Pepe did not notice the pothole as he turned left into the asphalt parking lot adjoining his local pharmacy, which was located two blocks from his townhouse.
He was almost out of his meds and didn’t want to risk going an entire weekend without them. He had done that once before, about two years ago. It had taken him several weeks to get his condition back under control.
The digital clock on the dashboard read two-fifteen and he was supposed to pick up Suzy at three-thirty.
“Carajo,” he muttered to himself, hoping the pothole had not caused any structural damage to his six-hundred-thousand dollar automobile.
He pulled into an empty parking spot and climbed out of the Ferrari, not sure with whom to be most angry: the pharmacy owner for not filling the hole, or himself for not remembering that it was there.
After all, he came here at least once a week and the pothole had probably been there since well before he was born.
He squatted down next to the driver’s side of the vehicle and carefully examined the expensive tire and body for any sign of damage. There was none, at least that he could see with the naked eye.
As he stood back up to continue with his shopping errand, he sensed the presence of someone behind him. He turned around to see two men.
“You got to be more careful driving a nice car like that,” said one of the men, who was wearing a sleeveless tee-shirt and sporting a tattoo on his right shoulder of a black horse rearing up on its hind legs. “You never can tell what might happen.”
Pepe’s eyes darted from side to side, expecting to see the black Range Rover that carried his two bodyguards. It was nowhere in sight.
“I hear you, man,” said a smiling Pepe in his best approximation of a Texas drawl, chuckling as he shrugged his shoulders. “The body looks fine, but I hope it didn’t mess up the balance. The tires on this car cost a fortune.”
Smiling as he tried to squeeze past the two men and head around the corner to the front door of the pharmacy, he felt one of them grab him around the chest with one arm while placing a damp rag over his face and nose with the other.
He lost consciousness within seconds.
* * * * *
FBI Houston Field Office
Pete Cortez was moving gingerly as he made his way from the elevator to his desk on the fifth floor of the FBI Field Office in northwest Houston. It was a Monday morning and he had spent the past weekend out sailing on the Gulf. He was nursing a brutal sunburn over most of his body.
The light starch on the collar of his white shirt chafed the skin of his neck. He had been shot three times during his adult life, twice while in the Army and once while with the Bureau. This sunburn hurt every bit as bad.
“Hey, Pete, the new ASAC wants to see you,” said a fellow agent, a woman in her early thirties who had recently transferred to Houston following a three-year stint in New Orleans.
“Did he happen to mention why?”
“No, just that he wanted to see you in his office as soon as you graced us with your presence this morning…his words, not mine.”
Cortez turned around and headed back in the opposite direction toward Jack Gonçalves’ office. Gonçalves—he pronounced it Gone-SALL-vez—had just recently returned to the Houston Field Office as an Assistant Special Agent in Charge, or ASAC, following a two-year tour at the headquarters in Washington. He had replaced Morris Applebaum.
For the past several months, Cortez had been serving as the Acting Supervisory Special Agent heading up the Violent Crimes Task Force, which fell under Gonçalves’ purview. It was a temporary assignment until a permanent SSA was assigned, although the ASAC was trying to convince Pete to apply for the position. Cortez’s hesitation was that the promotion would also take him away from “street work.”
“Come on in,” said the ASAC as Pete appeared in his doorway. “How was your weekend?”
“Teri and I spent a couple of days out on her sailboat. I only got sick once so I must be finally getting the hang of this boat thing.”
Teri Barnhart was a special agent assigned to the Bryan Resident Agency, about an hour northwest of Houston. She and Cortez had been dating for the past year and a half.
“It’s amazing the torment a man will withstand just to curry a woman’s favor,” said Gonçalves, smiling. “At least you’re no longer spending the entire time hanging over the rail feeding the fish.”
“There’s a reason I never even considered joining the Navy. When it comes to boats, my most critical task is to not forget to take some Dramamine before the stupid thing pulls away from the pier.”
“Well, it’s a small price to pay,” he said, laughing. “That woman is definitely a keeper, Pete, so try not to do anything to screw this one up.”
Offering romantic advice to subordinates is not normally within the purview of an ASAC, but he had known Cortez since the younger man’s first assignment in the Bureau a decade earlier. In a sense, he was almost like an older brother.
“So, what’s up, boss?”
“We’ve got a case that could use somebody who is fluent in Spanish.”
Cortez, who was the son of an American oil company executive, had been born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, before returning to the States for college. Like the previous four generations of Cortez men, he was a graduate of Texas A&M University and had served in the army before launching into a civilian career.
“Real Spanish or Tex-Mex?” he asked as he gingerly sat down in one of the two chairs in front of Gonçalves’ desk, careful not to aggravate his raging sunburn any further.
“You make it sound as if the two are as different as Arabic and Mandarin. Since when did you become such a linguistic snob?”
Cortez laughed. He had missed Jack Gonçalves’ sardonic humor over the past two years and was glad to have him back in Houston, this time with a well-deserved promotion.
It wasn’t that he disliked the previous ASAC. In fact, quite the opposite. Morris Applebaum had been a terrific person to work for, a man he could always count on to have his back.
Gonçalves was different, though. He was his mentor and the two had worked together for much of the time that Cortez had been in the FBI.
“We just received a report from the Mexican Consulate over in the Westchase district,” said the ASAC. “One of their people has disappeared. They’re afraid he might have been kidnapped.”
“How long has this person been missing?”
“The last anyone saw of him was Friday afternoon about two.”
“Him? So, it’s a guy, huh? Who is he?”
“A minor official…a young man named Juan Carlos Alonso. Apparently, his family is loaded.”
“Rich or drunk?”
The ASAC groaned but otherwise ignored his feeble attempt at humor, saying only, “Focus, Pete. The SAC has already received a call from Washington about this case.”
The SAC, or Special Agent in Charge, was the head of the entire Houston Field Office.
“Why do the Mexicans think he may have been kidnapped?” asked Pete, picking up on Gonçalves’ subtle comment that this investigation was already attracting an unusual degree of attention from the headquarters. “Have they received a ransom demand?”
“No, not yet…or at least not that they are willing to admit.”
“Does HPD have someone working this case?”
“Yeah, your old buddy, Barney Fontenot.”
“I’ll give him a call as soon as I get back to my desk,” said Pete. “I assume Diplomatic Security Service has been notified?”
“Yeah, but I want you to focus on finding this kid and getting him back. I’ll handle the liaison with DSS.”
As he got up from his chair to leave, the ASAC had one last bit of advice to impart.
“Be careful with this case, Pete. There are folks in Washington who are still watching you personally, so the first thing you need to figure out is what is so damn important about this minor consular official that Washington would feel the need to already be asking about this case.”
“Hopefully, it’s just because he’s a poor little rich kid.”
“Let’s hope that’s all it is,” said Gonçalves. “I’ve got a feeling it’s not.”
* * * * *
Monica Mendoza had been the mayor of Houston for the past three years and was already focused like a laser beam on her upcoming reelection campaign. She was fussing with her hair in front of the full-length mirror that hung from the inside of the closet door in her spacious office at city hall.
“Five minutes, madam mayor,” said Clifford Gentry, sticking his head through the open doorway to her office. “We’ve already got quite a crowd waiting for you in the press room.”
The local Houston press corps had been alerted about an hour earlier that the mayor and the chief of police had an important announcement to make. Rumor had it that the two were going to announce a new initiative involving community policing in the nation’s fourth largest city.
Crime is always a major issue during an election year, regardless of which side of the matter one was on. A truly skilled politician could straddle both sides, bridging the massive gulf with language so paper-thin that it wouldn’t even support the weight of a mosquito.
Monica Mendoza was just such a politician.
“Cliff, inform my press secretary that I will be there in two minutes,” she called out to her chief of staff in the next room. “Alert my security detail that I am on my way out the door.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he shouted back. “I’ll also let Chief Jimenez know, too.”
Jaime “Jimmy” Jimenez—pronounced he-MAN-ez—was the interim chief of police, having replaced his predecessor four months earlier after the man had been killed in a deer hunting accident out in West Texas.
He was most likely nervously loitering outside the press room waiting for the mayor to arrive for their joint press conference.
“Good idea, Cliff,” she said, nervously glancing at the time on her cellphone, which she always kept clutched in her left hand. “This close to an election, it never hurts to be seen standing alongside the chief of police as we protect our community from whatever peril our internal polling tells us the voters currently fear most.”
* * * * *
“A gritty FBI Thriller with jaw-dropping twists.” — BestThrillers.com
Who kidnapped Pepe Alonso? A rival Mexican cartel looking to cripple a competitor? A local Houston gang hoping for a big payday? A right-wing militia group? Could it be the Mexican government…or perhaps the U.S. government? Or someone else entirely?