Detective Jessica Ramirez could hear Lou Harrison’s bellow from the back porch of the meth house on Maryland street. The sound of a battering ram smashing the front door followed. She imagined the portly Field Training Officer that the older cops called “Kojak” handed that task off to Officer Chuck Butler. This would be the newly minted rookie’s first take down.
The distinctive sound of AR15 gunfire erupted in the house.
Jess didn’t wait for her senior officer to make the call.
“4-David-15, shots fired at 595 Maryland street. Requesting backup.”
She could hear dispatch’s confirmation in the tiny earpiece that cops lovingly call, “a roach.”
Beneath the kevlar vest that protected Jessica’s torso, a female voice whispered from an open line on her cell phone.
“Interesting sound effects. Ours or theirs?”
It was her sometime partner, Officer Alexandra Clark.
“No talking, Ali. You can only listen in if you keep your mouth shut.”
“I’m close by. Need some help until the boys arrive?”
“I got this, girlfriend. Now keep quiet or I’ll have Siri hang up on you.”
“Be careful, Jess. This should be a SWAT operation. It smells like Captain Batavia is putting you in harm’s way again.”
“Then I’ll bust some ass and make him regret the decision.”
Jess kicked in the back door, charging into what had once been a kitchen.
The place was deserted, not a stick of furniture, no lights, no other sounds. The Latina held a Glock 45 in the ready position against her chest, briefly clicking the barrel mounted LED on and off as she scanned the front room from cover behind the thin kitchen wall.
The roach came to life. "2-Boston-10. Shots fired at 595 Maryland. Probably multiple subjects with semi-autos. Outside requesting backup."
The boys had bailed on her. She was alone in the house with the bad guys. Time to get out and wait for reinforcements.
Jess sensed movement behind her. Then came the strike to the back of her head. And darkness.
* * *
1,637 miles southwest of Paloma, Illinois, the man who called himself Michael Allen was scanning a street corner in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. The tall redheaded woman he was looking for appeared, right on schedule.
She wore skinny dress pants that were one size too small for her ample hips. A flouncy top that accentuated her charms was wrapped in a red, fitted blazer. Her brown hair was piled at the peak of her head in a barely contained topknot. Large-rimmed hipster glasses balanced above her eyebrows. Nude pumps completed the ensemble below. A necklace with a pair of ivory dice danced, guiding the eyes in the direction most men eventually go. Whatever it was that encircled her left ring finger was definitely not matrimonial.
Michael Allen smiled, typing two words into the encrypted messenger on his cell phone.
* * *
The concussion turned out to be minor. But that didn't stop the spinning sensation Jessica Ramirez felt as she fought her way back to consciousness.
She recognized the basement from her youth. Gone were the Mexican murals on the walls, the bean bag chairs, the television and the ping pong table. The distinctive smell of geraniums confirmed that this place was now a meth lab. Propane tanks, boxes of pseudoephedrine, coffee filters, frying pans and an array of bottles and tubing were arranged on a long workbench. A gaping hole in the foundation revealed a tunnel that Jess concluded surfaced beyond the property line, where she had seen a tool shed and a gleaming Camaro in another dilapidated driveway.
A pair of strong arms held hers behind her, pinning her shoulders against the back of a metal folding chair. The roach and the radio were gone. Her two Glocks, the one she kept on her belt and her ankle holstered backup lay on a workbench. Thankfully, they didn’t take the vest and didn’t know about the cellphone inside of it.
She considered the man who stood in front of her. Tall, around six feet, very thin, with the facial markings of someone who used a little too much of his own product. He held the AR15 rifle loosely in his right hand. The butt of the gun must have been what put her to sleep.
"A beautiful place you have here," Jess said. "I remember playing Monopoly in this basement when I was a kid."
"Do you need another nap?" the man said, massaging the stock of his AR15. "Ricardo, cuff her arms behind that chair. Time to relocate."
Jess realized that the short fireplug with the muscular arms was a low-level gang banger she knew from the barrio.
The recognition was mutual.
“Making a young boy an accessory to the assault of a police officer. You’re full of bad decisions today, pendejo. Give it up before my partners bust in and cap your skinny ass.”
“Shut up, Jessi,” Ricardo whispered. “He’s a user and the fix is wearing off.”
The addict pulled Jess’ service weapon off of the work bench. He forced her mouth open with one hand and put the barrel of the Glock inside of it with the other. "I say we kill her with her own gun and wrap her cold fingers around the grip to make it look like suicide."
Jess could taste the sting of the petroleum solvent she used to keep the weapon lubricated and clean.
"Let's see what the wall looks like with her brains all over it."
Jess bit down on the gun barrel, her eyes blazing.
“Do it, shithead. I dare you.”
* * *
"Have we met before?" he asked.
She scoffed. “You're seriously opening with your weakest material?"
“Setting low expectations allows me to exceed them later on.”
"I see." She knew the type well. Six-foot-two. Expensive haircut. Tanned. Probably a college football star with an ego that matched muscles that rippled beneath his Armani suit.
“I'm due back at work and don't have time for this so my expectations are that you'll give it up and try your act out on someone older and more needy.”
“To be totally honest, I thought you were a model with the Austin Agency. My sister works there. She described you. Carrie Underwood’s face, Kate Hudson’s smile and Jessica Simpson’s curves that tongue-tie the photogs. I’d recognize you anywhere.”
“That’s some of the best patronizing bullshit I’ve heard. You’ve earned a modicum of information. I work at April’s Boutique.”
He looked hurt.
“It’s a truthful assessment. April’s eh? Maybe it was you who helped me. I’m a dunce when it comes to gifts for women and that place has never let me down.”
“For your wife?” His type always had a wife.
He chuckled. “I wish. I love the institution but never found the right partner. I shop at April’s for Mom. Since Dad died, I’ve tried to be an especially attentive son.”
It was the right answer but she was still wary.
“What did you get her?”
She saw his eyes scan her body. It was a sensation that at once pleased and disgusted her.
“That necklace. She loves the game Yahtzee. You recommended the dice.”
The dice. April didn’t carry that item. Clearly this guy was lying.
An idea was beginning to form in her head. She would play the game a little longer.
“I thought they were cute, too.” She twisted the small ivories between her thumb and index finger. “One of the regulars said they bring good fortune.”
“They certainly worked today,” Michael said. “And I think my sister would agree that you are definitely model material.”
She had a caustic answer locked and loaded, but this man wasn’t going to give her time to fire it.
“Was it tough for you in college? I mean the thing where men discount a woman’s intellect just because she’s attractive? I hate that.”
“You’re really working hard on this, aren’t you? That’s a guy thing. Everybody does it.”
“Nope.” He was emphatic. “It only happens to the really beautiful ones. I never joined a frat in school for that reason. Objectification drives me crazy.”
He had a point.
“Well, I can’t say I totally agree with that. Women enjoy being appreciated for our brains.” She twirled a lock of her hair with her little finger. “But it’s nice to know that the trouble we take to look presentable is noticed.”
“Exactly! Now you are totally channeling my mother. Dad used to bring her flowers out of the blue, for no special reason. He’d just say, ‘you were on my mind today, love, and I wanted you to know how much I appreciate you.’”
“Nobody behaves that way anymore. And it certainly was not the case in the household where I grew up. The world would be a better place if people were more appreciative.”
“He was my role model. Mom always used to tell us that on the day they met, he said, ‘Something tells me this is a moment I’ll never forget.’”
His line touched a corner of her heart she thought had died long ago. Was he still lying or was this the truth?
“Did you say he passed away?”
“Three years ago. Two tours in Vietnam. The Agent Orange ultimately got him. I still come home and expect to see him at the front door.”
“You’re definitely persistent,” she said. “But I’ve had it with men for the time being.”
“Look, I’m sorry to have taken up so much of your time and I hope you’ll forgive that stupid stuff I said about the modeling thing. You really are the entire package. Thanks for helping me make the April’s connection. Mom will love that I met someone else who believes in good luck.”
“How do you know I’m not a lesbian?”
She loved tossing that one in the direction of would-be suitors. The question knocked him back a step. But she could see him recover.
“My gay-dar says otherwise. But if that’s true, it’s just another fascinating conversation topic.”
“You’re not going to leave me alone until you get something, are you?”
She could see that the word something raised his blood pressure in an embarrassing place. He was fighting to get back some control of the conversation.
“You know what?”
Here’s where he tries to close the sale, she thought.
“I’m feeling serendipity. I have a sixth sense about this. If it’s not too forward, I’d love the opportunity to try and change your attitude.”
He was definitely different than her current dating pool. Very different. She felt an odd combination of fatigue and excitement. What could it hurt to give this guy a try?
“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “Come by at 5:45 on Wednesday, I might have a couple of ideas for your mom. I’ll give you a shot at being your authentic self over coffee after.”
“Let’s make it dinner. It’s almost the end of the month and if I don’t burn some money at the Century Club, they take it out of my account anyway. 5:45, it is.”
“Please prove to me that you’re not a total idiot.” She proffered a hand. "I’m Ann. Ann Blakely.”
He took it. She made sure that her handshake was solid; boardroom masculine in its firm grip.
“I accept the challenge,” he answered. “I’m Michael Allen.”
“See you soon, Michael Allen.”
She turned, crossing with the light in the direction of April’s Boutique.
* * *
Michael Allen smiled. Things were going exactly as planned. He had one more thing to say to her, waiting a beat to make sure the last line had impact.
“Something tells me this is a moment I’ll never forget.”
* * *
"Killing a cop puts us all away for life, gringo,” Ricardo said.
Jess could feel the addict’s hand shaking. The Glock rattled against her teeth. She was losing patience with these two.
“Shoot me,” she said, “and you two will never walk out of here alive.”
Her taunt seemed to have no effect on the man with the AR.
“What have we got to lose, Ricardo? She's got a make on all of us. It's only a matter of time before a long burn in the joint."
"That meth you're hooked on is frying your brain, pendejo,” Ricardo said. “Let's just leave her here and blow. She's got brothers outside and an army on the way."
His boss could still count, Jess thought. The addict pulled the weapon out of her mouth and put it on the workbench.
"Give it up guys," she said. "Ricardo is right. Turn me loose. Give me the weapons and let's all leave in one piece."
She could sense that the meth in the gun-toter’s system was dissipating. He needed a refill. It wasn't helping his mood.
"Uncuff her right arm," he commanded.
Ricardo obliged, holding Jess’s left arm tightly in two thick fists. His boss grabbed Jess's wrist, turning it upward. He produced a Border Guard hunting knife. With slow precision, he cut a thin incision from just below Jess's elbow to an inch above her wrist.
"Deep enough to do the job but slow enough so you won’t bleed out until you feel the burn. Lock her back up, Ricardo."
Rivulets of crimson bubbled up from the wound, dripping into a puddle on the cement floor. Jess tried to guess how many stitches it would take to plug the leak and thought about how the scar would be one more trophy she could display to any man who tried to tell her that police work was, “no place for girls.”
“Assaulting a police officer,” she said. “That’s it. Uncuff me and watch how this bleeding woman kicks your skinny ass.”
The addict shoved the hunting knife in his belt and pointed the AR in the direction of a shelf that hung on the wall right above the chair where Jess was cuffed. On it were two large containers of highly flammable acetone.
"We walk. You die."
He fired twice, one for each can. The hot lead was enough to penetrate the aluminum and ignite the contents. A jet of blue shot across the room like a flame thrower.
“Typical. Another stupid junky thinking with his balls instead of his brain.”
She turned to Ricardo. The face she had known since he was a five-year-old looked too young and too scared. Perhaps there was hope for him.
“Do the right thing,” she whispered. “Cut me loose.”
He dropped the cuff keys into Jess's open palms and put her radio out of the addict’s sight behind the rear leg of the chair.
"Adios, hermanita," Ricardo said. "Saludas a tu madre."
Jess smiled to herself. “I own these guys. Never let the bastards see you sweat.”
She could see that Ricardo was doing the sweating, some uncomfortable thoughts painting his young face with concern.
“The money!” he said. “It's upstairs in the back bedroom!”
The look on the addict’s face told Jess that the boss had not thought about that when he blew holes in the acetone.
Flames enveloped the workbench. They danced across the dry floor joists consuming them like a hungry runner guzzles water after a 10K.
Ricardo went for the tunnel. The addict went for the money.
By the time the two had cleared the basement, Jess was out of the cuffs. She grabbed her Glock and bounded up the stairs, the flames chasing her in search of oxygen. Fire vomited out of the basement door, starting to chew up the first-floor drywall. No time to think about a bandage for the arm. The blood loss was making her lightheaded. Time to bail.
“2-Boston-10 and all units. 4-David-15 is coming out the front door now. One of the perps is headed out the back. The other will be exiting any second. Alert the fire department and get back here to help me bag these bad boys before this place goes up.”
Dispatch repeated the particulars. The firefighters would be here in five minutes. Jess wasn't sure the house would last that long.
She remembered the cell phone.
“Still with me, girlfriend?”
“You sure know how to play nice with boys. Did you really dare that guy to ‘pull the trigger’?”
“I like troubled souls,” Jess said. “That's why I put up with you for so long.”
“How bad did they hurt you?”
“I won't be donating blood anytime soon.”
“Need some help?”
“Not unless you're O-Positive. I have things under control. Gotta go.”
Jess disconnected the call.
She stumbled out of the front door, coughing, bleeding and attempting to aim her weapon at whatever might follow.
She tried to focus. The tunnel vision that fighter pilots get when they pull G’s was another indicator of blood loss. It was like looking backwards through a telescope.
Sirens sang in the distance.
Jess's head was throbbing with each heartbeat. She switched the Glock to her right hand, putting pressure on her wound with her left. One could live without breathing for five minutes. You could bleed to death in two.
Kojak lumbered up the berm just as the addict burst out of the doorway. He held the AR in his right hand, a briefcase in his left.
The perp fired the weapon, nailing Kojak gut-center.
The FTO’s Kevlar vest did its job. Jess deduced that Kojak would survive, but the impact was like getting hit with a baseball bat.
The FTO fell backwards, clearing the field of view for Jess to fire. She commanded her arms to raise the Glock. They wouldn't respond.
A gunshot erupted from across the street. The .223 caliber round hit the addict squarely between the eyes. Jess heard Ali's familiar voice on the radio.
“4-David-15 from 10-Mary-12. You're all clear, girlfriend. Get the hell away from that fire pit.”
Another blast echoed from the back yard, followed by the explosive report of Butler's 12 gauge.
“One down in the shed.”
Jess said a silent prayer that Ricardo would survive the day. She turned her fury in the direction of the rifle fire.
“I could have handled this, Alexandra.”
“I'm surprised you are still standing. Get off that hill and find some place to collapse until the medics get here.”
“You always want the limelight.”
“You couldn't raise that gun, Jessica. I saved your life... again.”
Jess's head was spinning. The right leg of her cargo pants was awash in blood.
“What do you say, Kojak? Another second, and I would have neutralized that skinny punk without ‘Ego Girl’s’ intervention.”
Harrison was on his feet, breathing hard.
“I think you're out of the fight, JRam. Sit down before you fall down.”
Her legs wouldn't move. Her body no longer had enough vital fluid in it to comply with her brain's command. Jess felt her consciousness slipping away.
A snakelike hissing sound emanated from the basement. There was enough propane down there to vaporize the place. Jess could feel Harrison’s arms around her waist, pulling her away from the danger.
The two police officers rolled down the berm and onto the asphalt. The tanks ignited. 595 Maryland was pulverized into a tsunami of fire and smoke. The siding on the adjoining houses melted like butter, the particle board beneath bursting into flames. A shock wave shattered windows for a block in every direction.
Jess was drifting toward the darkness. Kojak's 280 pounds were on top of her, pressing her body onto the pavement. Ali's voice seemed to come from far away.
“10-Mary-12. Request EMTs at 595 Maryland Street. Officers down.”
Jess was face to face with the burley FTO. He was breathing heavily. The bouquet of an Altoid surrounded her with each exhalation.
“I think they won't be making any more crystal at this address,” Harrison wheezed.
“You're invading my personal space, Kojak.”
“I just saved your life, JRam. A little gratitude wouldn't hurt.”
Jess smiled as unconsciousness enveloped her.
“If you want to make love to me, Lou,” she whispered. “At least bring me flowers first.”