DEA agent Nick Lafferty leads the investigation to track down a new and deadly form of synthetic crack cocaine called Crystal White that has hit the streets of Southern California. But when everything he holds dear is suddenly ripped away from him—and the cartel kingpin responsible escapes—Nick Lafferty is left a broken man, a man with nothing left to life for.
On forced leave from his agency and not knowing if he’ll ever go back, Nick Lafferty returns to his hometown in the suburbs of New York to attend his father’s funeral. While there, he learns that the street poison he knew as Crystal White—whose production and distribution he stopped at an overwhelming personal cost—has begun to appear on the streets in cities and towns in lower Westchester County.
With nothing left to lose, Lafferty sets out to determine if the same person who destroyed his life is also responsible for this new wave of synthetic death. Aided by his ex-partner, Delmar Harley, an alcoholic cop on the edge, Lafferty is dogged by a beautiful assistant district attorney who believes Lafferty is a rogue agent, a danger to himself and the public at large.
Undeterred and driven by rage, Lafferty relentlessly embarks on a dark and vengeful journey of revenge, mounting a full-on assault against the Crystal White drug cartel. He will stop at nothing to make them pay—with their lives…or his.
SPECIAL AGENT NICK LAFFERTY swore at the vibrating cell phone, trapped in the breast pocket of his suit jacket under his DEA-issued body armor. He ripped open the top Velcro strap and fished his hand under the vest trying to reach the damn thing before it buzzed again. A passing police sergeant, dressed in urban fatigues and body armor, and carrying an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, said, “Sharp shooters are in position, Agent Lafferty. Ready when you are.”
He nodded thanks. With the cell phone firmly in hand, he flipped it open. “Lafferty here.”
“Lafferty here, too.” His wife, Renee, mimicked what she called his command voice before bursting out laughing. “Except, for us, here is on the boat. We’re missing you. Any chance you’ll be able to join us later?”
It was Sunday morning. He’d promised to take Renee and Vicki, his seven-year-old daughter, out for a cruise on their thirty-two-foot Chris-Craft Catalina, You Can Run. The two “girls” were on the boat docked at the marina off Harbor Drive in San Diego Bay. By now, the sun would be full up, warm, baking the dry, gray wharf and the teak aft decking of the boat.
Gulls would be circling and cawing, begging for handouts from the early-morning fishermen lining the piers. A light breeze would be snapping the harbor flags, carrying on it an intoxicating aroma of salt water, wet rope, and diesel fuel. Lafferty could practically hear the lapping of waves, the thump of fiberglass hulls against rubber bumpers, the creak of straining ropes.
He glanced around at the warehouse he had commandeered for that morning’s ad-hoc operation. A far cry from the sunny marina where he wanted to be on his boat, with his family.
Instead, he was with his Mobile Enforcement Team, all of them dressed in heavy bullet-resistant vests under their official, blue, DEA windbreakers. With them was a Special Operations Bureau team from the Ontario, California PD alongside the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Tactical Services Unit, also decked out in urban camouflage, full tactical gear, and body armor.
“I don’t know, honey,” Lafferty said into the phone. “I need to see how this thing plays out.”
“This thing” was an undercover investigation started eighteen months before. One he’d begun and had worked on, supervising a young Latino undercover agent named Oscar Ortiz. Their objective was to bring down a drug cartel kingpin named Ruben Nazario, a Mexican national who dealt a new and deadly kind of street poison called Crystal White. Lafferty had high hopes of wrapping the whole thing up this very day. If they could, it would put Ruben Nazario and his entire crew of poison pushers out of business forever.
“Don’t wait for me,” Lafferty told Renee.
“Well, poo,” Renee playfully pouted. Lafferty smiled. After eight years of marriage to a DEA agent, she knew the drill. She was one in a million. Lafferty snapped the phone shut after an ‘I-love-you’ and dropped it into his front pants pocket.
Lafferty had learned from Ortiz early that morning that Nazario planned to inspect a distribution operation his gang was running out of a small warehouse in the two hundred block of Wanamaker Drive, just off the crossroads between the I-15 and the San Bernardino Freeway, one of seven warehouses clustered together and serviced by three paved roads, each a hop, skip and a jump to the freeways. The building in question had been well chosen and was particularly difficult for Lafferty’s men to reconnoiter and secure without giving themselves away.
Lafferty looked at the men and women gathered inside the warehouse. If they could catch Nazario with the product red-handed, it would be a home run. He said, “All right, you clowns, ready to go to work?”
To a person, they enthusiastically grunted, roared, and called out: “Let’s do it.”
Lafferty climbed into the first of three unmarked panel trucks and sat down with his people. He would lead the two DEA Mobile Enforcement Teams: his, and one joining them from the L.A. field office. They would make the initial approach through the building’s office entrance. The sheriff’s Tactical Services Unit would cover the fire exits along the east side of the building, and the Special Ops guys from Ontario had agreed to cover the west side exits and the five overhead bay doors. Also, the building was covered by SWAT snipers, and additional uniform patrol units were in the vicinity, on standby to assist, if needed.
Lafferty’s teams drove the three short blocks to the target warehouse in silence. When the van stopped, Lafferty looked down the two rows of faces, then nodded. They nodded back. Ready. He threw open the van doors. The front entrance to the building was locked but the aluminum frame held little resistance against the battering ram his agents brought to bear. The doors flew back, smashing into walls. The glass panels shattered and rained down a gazillion shards.
Once the entrance was breached, Lafferty’s markswoman and her utility man rushed in, their M14 rifles at the ready. Lafferty, armed with a SIG Sauer, followed, while two more agents brought up the rear. They quickly spread out to the left and the right.
He signaled team two to proceed to the second floor while his own team cleared the first floor waiting area, each of the small offices, and the restrooms, where they encountered no resistance. In fact, they encountered no one at all.
Any misgivings Lafferty had, he dismissed. Everyone would be in the back, examining the product, he reasoned. Team two radioed Lafferty from upstairs. It was empty too.
That left the warehouse itself.
At the single door leading into the warehousing section, agents took up positions on the left side: one high, one low. Two others mirrored them on the right.
Lafferty stood to the side and nodded his go-ahead. The door swung open, and a flash bang grenade was tossed inside. The device exploded, then Lafferty charged through the diffused light and noise, shouting, “DEA! Put your hands in the air!”
Behind him, agents rushed through the open door, their feet thundering across the concrete floor, their gear clattering while they spread out, ready to shoot anything that moved. Having cleared the second floor, team two quickly followed them in to assist in clearing the warehouse space.
Lafferty’s shouted commands echoed in the vast emptiness.
There was no scraping of chairs or tables as people jumped to their feet, no snatching up of weapons or frightened yelling, no scrambling of gangbangers trying to run away or preparing to fight their way out. Like the front offices, the warehouse was completely empty.
Lafferty had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, suddenly afraid they’d been duped.
The teams spread out, cautiously checking the open space, searching the nooks and crannies created by flimsily constructed, unpainted plywood offices and rows of empty metal racks.
Lafferty keyed his radio to speak to the Ontario sergeant in charge of the motorized response team outside. They would be in play by now, screeching to angled stops, blocking each of the five bay doors, preventing anyone from fleeing by car or on foot. But there was nobody inside trying to escape.
Before he could speak, Lafferty released his hold on the radio when he heard an agent cry out. “Oh, fuck, no. Fuck!”
Lafferty charged around a plywood office built on wooden pallets at one end of the row of overhead bay doors. Rounding the corner, he stopped short, coming face to face with his young undercover agent Oscar Ortiz.
Ortiz’s wrists were strapped together with plastic ties, his arms hoisted up and over his head.
The agent hung from a chain and hook. His feet dangled inches off the oil-stained concrete floor and his head lolled forward, stringy, black hair curtaining his handsome, swarthy face. He had on an Army field jacket and a plaid work shirt. Both hung open. His black tee shirt underneath had been torn to shreds, revealing a narrow brown chest—carved open by long, jagged lacerations etched into his skin.
More cuts marred his smooth cheeks and crisscrossed his forehead. Some were superficial, but others were deep and had been fatal. Ortiz swayed over a shiny red puddle, blood from where the man had bled out. Droplets of blood still dripped off the toe of the young agent’s sneakers. The grisly image of his mutilated body reflected up from the macabre, wet pool.
His death had been sadistic, torturous, and painful.
Lafferty stared at Ortiz, unable to move.
An agent stuck his head out from one of the plywood offices. The rough-hewed door he held open was marked receiving in scrawled black magic-marker lettering. “Agent Lafferty. I’m sorry, but you need to see this now.”
I can’t leave. Look at what I’ve done.
When Lafferty failed to respond, the agent called out again. “Sir. You really need to see this now.”
Lafferty wiped his face with his hand, breaking eye contact with Ortiz’s corpse. On stiff, protesting legs he backed away from his young agent, wondering what could be more damned important than…
He stepped into the temporary office. Inside, there was a cheap metal folding table had been set up. Six feet long. On it sat a computer tower, speakers, a gaming joystick, and other ancillary computer and audio-visual devices arranged around five plasma screens: four small, nineteen-inch ones and a large, forty-two-inch model.
On one small screen, Lafferty recognized the dark, mustached visage of Ruben Nazario staring back at him. His sun-saturated flesh, the color of dried leather, showed up craggy and lined with deeply etched crevices, the result of a youth spent working outside under the harsh Mexican sun. A thick, black moustache shot through with grey framed his mouth looking like a caterpillar glued to his upper lip.
“Ah, Agent Nick Lafferty. A pleasure to finally meet you.” Nazario smiled, adding, “In a manner of speaking. But fear not, Agent Ortiz has told me much about you, so I feel as if you and I are old friends. A shame he didn’t live long enough—”
Lafferty’s blood ran cold. “Where the hell are you, Nazario?”
“Oh,” Nazario said. “I don’t believe it would be in my best interest to divulge such information. I’m quite sure you understand.”
“Why did you do it?” Lafferty asked. “He was just a kid.”
A kid I failed to protect.
Nazario shrugged. “It was nothing personal, Agent Lafferty.” He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “But I couldn’t allow such a violation of my…trust to go unanswered. What sort of message would that send to others who might consider spying on me, huh?”
Lafferty ground together his back teeth. “You’ll pay for this, Nazario. I swear. If it’s the last thing I do. You’ll pay. Do you hear me?”
Nazario shook his head. “No. I don’t think so. Besides, we have unfinished business of our own to conclude.”
“What unfinished business?” Lafferty blinked when the big screen, along with the remaining smaller ones, suddenly snapped on. He stared at each of the multiple images, his eyes moving from one, to the next, to the next. A cold shiver coursed through him. He recognized immediately what the screens showed: the marina off Harbor Drive in San Diego Bay.
He took a step forward. “What is this?”
But he knew. The cameras were part of a security and surveillance system the management company had installed to protect the marina. Part of a comprehensive burglary, fire, and access control system monitored and operated via a secure Internet connection.
Apparently not secure enough. Nazario had somehow hacked in and hijacked the system.
The large main screen zoomed in on the aft deck of a single boat. His boat. The You Can Run.
“Tell me, Agent Lafferty, do you not recognize your own boat?”
A live feed. He could see Renee and Vicki sitting on the aft deck, a red-and-white-checked picnic cloth spread out between two. An open picnic basket beside Rene, paper plates and napkins, soda bottles, and cups arranged around them while they sat eating fried chicken and, since the large screen came without any audio, laughing silently.
“What is this, Nazario? You trying to scare me? Show me how close you can get to my family?” Lafferty didn’t tell the man he was succeeding. Lafferty, his throat so dry he could barely speak, was terrified.
The primary screen remained on Renee and Vicki. Close up. But the three small screens displayed other areas of the marina. Lafferty watched as three young Hispanic men emerged from shadowy hiding places wearing gang colors and baggy cargo pants, open plaid shirts, and untied sneakers. Each man carried a 9mm handgun. Silently, they moved along the wharf, passing docked boats, and advancing on the You Can Run. Advancing on Renee and Vicki.
Lafferty’s palms began to sweat. “You son of a bitch!”
He fought to keep the panic from his voice. “OK. You made your point. What do you want?”
From the remaining screen, Nazario said, “I want to know, Agent Lafferty…to what lengths will you go to save your family?” When Lafferty didn’t answer, Nazario narrowed his eyes to reptilian slits. “Answer me!”
Lafferty blinked. He shouted, “Anything, you bastard! I’ll do anything!”
Nazario sat back, a sadistic smile spreading across his face. “As I thought.” He shrugged. “Unfortunately, you have nothing that I want. Goodbye, Agent Lafferty.”
Nazario’s image on the screen snapped to black.
Lafferty rushed forward. “No!”
On the three small screens left operating, he watched, helpless, as the gunmen moved closer, advancing on his family. On the large screen, Renee and Vicki had begun a napkin war, blissfully wading napkins up into balls and tossing them at each other, unaware of the danger they were in.
“We’ve got units on the way,” someone said.
Gripped by panic, Lafferty groaned. “I’ve got to get them out of there!”
He fished his phone from his pant’s pocket. His fingers trembling, he opened it and hit Renee’s speed dial number. Lafferty silently prayed while Renee and Vicki sat cross-legged and went back to eating and talking, laughing between bites of fried chicken and potato salad. The phone to his ear, he heard it ring, connecting. Pick up. Pick up. He watched as Renee raised a finger, stopping Vicki in mid-sentence. She reached for the cell phone on the red-and-white picnic cloth next to her.
Lafferty saw her check the LCD readout, read her lip as she said: Hold on. It’s Daddy.
She flipped the phone open, completing the connection.
And the boat exploded.
David DeLee is a native New Yorker, though he and his family now make their home in the great state of New Hampshire. He holds a masters degree in Criminal Justice and is a former licensed private investigator. David is the author of the Grace deHaviland Bounty Hunter series, including the short story, Bling, Bling, which first appeared in the Mystery Writers of America anthology The Rich and the Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille and published by Grand Central Publishing in 2011.
David DeLee can be reached through Dark Road Publishing at
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