“Thanks for meeting with me, Mason. Have a seat.”
Mason Decker looked at the empty chair opposite Chief Deputy Carlos Carrera and considered asking if he could stand. If he was going to be told yet again that his application to the U.S. Marshals Service had been denied, he'd rather be on his feet when he got the news. After two previous attempts to enter the program, he wondered why the third warranted a face-to-face with the California southern district's chief deputy marshal, rather than the usual consolation letter. Maybe it was a three-strikes-and-you're-out sort of situation.
Mason cleared his throat and settled in the chair. After a year with San Francisco PD and then a five-year stint as an undercover agent for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, he'd been ready for a change of scenery. Apparently, the USMS felt that Mason's historyâand familyâdisqualified him as a viable candidate for their program, despite his glowing service record with CBP. Though in his last interview, they'd noted he'd be well suited for undercover work and suggested he stay on with Customs, that's not what Mason wanted. Which was why he'd left CBP two weeks ago.
His end goal had always been to join the Marshals Service. He'd keep applying to the program until they accepted him. He was more than the family he'd been born into and he wouldn't quit until they let him prove it. Mason just hoped he hadn't been asked here today to be shut down permanently. They couldn't do that? Could they?
“I'm sure you're wondering why I asked you to come in today.” Carrera leaned forward in his seat and rested his elbows on the desk. His dark eyes zeroed in on Mason and he settled back. He wished the chief deputy wouldn't beat around the bush. If he was out, why not just say it?
“Yeah, well . . .” Mason propped his elbows on the armrests of his chair. “Usually you guys send me a letter to tell me my application was shit-canned. Again.”
Carrera smirked. “You've applied to the program twice in the past five years. But after reviewing your application and background checks, it was determined that because of your familial relationships, we might not be the right fit for you. The powers that be felt the stress of what might be required of you would be too much.”
Was this a joke? “I've been working undercover for Customs for five years,” Mason replied. “And I think you know how close those cases related to my
. Last time I checked, no one at CBP had anything to complain about as far as my job performance went.”
“True. But you mentioned in your interview that you were looking for a change of pace. You do realize that becoming a deputy U.S. marshal would mean that things wouldn't slow down. In fact, the pace might be a little faster than you're prepared for.”
Mason knew what the Marshals Service dealt with. They were the country's most elite law enforcement agency. They went places other agencies wouldn't go and chased criminals that other cops refused to go after. They arrested and transported the worst of the worst. Some of the most dangerous assholes in the world. They risked their lives on a regular basis and rumor had it that most marshals discharged their firearms at least once a day. It was exactly the change of pace he was looking for. Mason was tired of busting smugglers and being used for his particular expertise. He wanted more out of his life and his career.
“I'd like to get out of undercover work, that's all.” Not that Mason owed Carrera an explanation.
“We do undercover work.”
A slow sigh escaped from between Mason's lips. Why couldn't Carrera just tell him they weren't going to take him and leave it at that? “I'm aware of that. But most of your undercover ops are short-term.”
“True.” For a long moment Carrera studied him. The other man's scrutinizing stare made Mason seven different kinds of twitchy, as though he were trying to crawl right into his head and take a look at what Mason had going on up there. “You're one of their top undercover guys. And good at your job from what I hear. Why do you want to leave it?”
His entire life he'd been followed by the stigma of his dad's reputation. Mason didn't want to talk about it. In his job, he didn't want his worth to be equated to his upbringing. “Because I want to be a deputy U.S. marshal.” He fixed Carrera with a stern stare. “It's been my goal since I joined the police academy.”
Carrera pursed his lips. “And you're not interested in undercover work anymore?”
“I'm tired of being used specifically for busting smuggling rings and nothing else.” Mason wasn't a one-trick pony. His skills and knowledge went way past knowing how a con artist and smuggler operated.
“That's too bad.”
“Yeah?” Mason couldn't keep the disdain from his tone. “Why's that?”
“Because I have a proposition for you.”
Mason didn't like the sound of that. He couldn't muster up any enthusiasm in his response. “What?”
Carrera regarded him for a quiet moment. “Kieran Eagan is back in the city.”
Mason let out a disbelieving chuff of laughter and shifted in his seat. If he'd known this was why he'd been asked to meet with Carrera, he never would have come. “You're kidding, right?”
Kieran Eagan was one of the world's most infamous diamond smugglers. He'd managed to elude law enforcement agenciesâincluding U.S. Customsâfor the past few years. He was damn good at what he did, had learned his skills from the best in the world. Irreverent. Daring. Smart. Kieran was the total criminal package. The white whale that every cop would love to bring in.
“The Justice Department has formed a joint task force to bring down an up-and-coming criminal syndicate known as Faction Five. Eagan is believed to be a potential player. Customs, FBI, the Office of the U.S. Attorneys, and the Marshals Service are all involved.”
This wasn't about his application at all, was it? They wanted him because they wanted Kieran. “No.” Mason gave an emphatic shake of his head. “No way in hell.”
Carrera held up his hands as though that was enough to calm Mason's building annoyance. “Hear me out. You already have the connection. You know how Eagan thinks, what his next move will be. Right now, arresting him is less of a priority than finding out what he knows about Faction Five. If you help us out on this, I can help you out, Mason. I can fast-track your application and get you into Glynco.”
Apparently the USMS wasn't above extortion to get what they wanted. Or in this case, coercion. Dangling something Mason wanted just out of his reach. All he had to do was play ball. “We want to use Kieran as an asset. We're after bigger fish than a diamond smuggler. You can bring him to us.” Carrera was quick to assure Mason that he'd be doing nothing more than using Kieran for intel. As though that would somehow entice him to sign on.
Mason swore under his breath and released the air from his lungs in a forceful gust. “CBP knows you're talking to me?”
“We're working closely with Customs on this,” Carrera replied. “Gene Fry was the one who suggested we approach you.”
Of course. His own former supervisor had thrown him under the bus. “How long has the task force been working on this?” At this point Mason wouldn't put it past them to have orchestrated his rejected applications in order to gain his cooperation for this operation.
“A few weeks.” Carrera swiveled his chair back and forth. “I know what you're thinking, Mason, but this isn't some big conspiracy. You can get close to Eagan. We need to know what he knows. Take my offer as the compliment that it is. Accept the job and help us identify the key players so we can bring this syndicate down.”
Mason hated duplicity, which, considering his upbringing, sort of made him a hypocrite. “If you talked to Fry, then you know we had a deal about me working any Customs cases that might involve Kieran.” That Carrera even had the nerve to ask him to do this made his gut bottom out.
“I do,” Carrera replied. “And I also know that as far as integrity goes, no one with CBP ever questioned yours.”
Did he think that assurance would somehow make Mason feel better about what they wanted him to do? “Kieran has been smuggling diamonds out of conflict areas for a long damned time. He's the best. There's a reason why no one's been able to make an arrest stick.”
“Like I said”âCarrera leveled his gazeâ“we're not interested in taking him down. Right now, our priority is Faction Five. Justice wants this syndicate squashed before they have a chance to gain any traction. And we want you to help us do it.”
“What is Faction Five?” Whoever they were, if Kieran was working with them it was because it would directly benefit him somehow. He didn't play well with others and he sure as hell didn't share his money or his business connections.
“We're not entirely sure.” At least Carrera had the balls to admit it. “But we have some ideas. We're hoping that by getting close to Eagan, you can help us figure it all out.”
It was obvious Kieran was one rung on a ladder that went a hell of a lot higher than Mason's pay grade allowed him access to.
“Who's heading up the task force?”
Carrera leaned back in his chair. “Charlie Cahill with the U.S. Attorneys office.”
A lawyer. Great
. In Mason's experience, all lawyers managed to do was fuck everything up. He preferred to deal with them after the investigation was complete. And even then it was never a pleasant experience. “And if I agreed to join the task force, who would I answer to?”
“Well, since you're not officially affiliated with any agency right now, you'd answer to me.”
Mason felt the noose of Carrera's offer tighten around his neck. “Temporary deputy marshal status?”
“Something like that.”
The chief deputy was certainly making Mason an offer he couldn't refuse. At this point, his options were few. He was officially unemployed and his job prospects weren't looking great. He wasn't interested in returning to the San Francisco PD, and even though CBP wanted him back, he was done with the way they'd pigeonholed him. His options were either take this gig or work as a rent-a-cop somewhere. And as far as Mason was concerned, that
an option. Was he ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to get what he wanted?
“I'm in,” he said after a long moment.
“Good.” Carrera scribbled something on a notepad before tearing the sheet off and sliding it across the desk toward Mason. He scooped it up in his hand and glanced at the address. “We'll brief you tomorrow morning at nine. Don't be late.”
Mason pushed himself up from the chair. “Yeah. I'll be there.”
He left the chief deputy's office without a word in parting. Despite the fact he was getting what he wanted in the long run, Mason couldn't shake the feeling that he might have just made the worst decision of his life.
* * *
“Can I get another Bloody Mary, Lacey?”
“Sure. Rough day?”
Weren't they all?
Charlotte Cahill pushed her empty glass toward her friend and eased one foot out of its stiletto, letting the shoe dangle from her toes. It wasn't quite barefoot, but good enough. The only thing that had got her through the day was knowing that the barâand her friendâwere just around the corner from her office. “Remind me again why I declined my dad's offer to join his practice?”
Lacey smiled. She grabbed a bottle of vodka from the bar and poured a generous shot into a clean glass. “Because you hate stuffy corporate types, you're not in it for the money, and you get a rush from taking down the bad guy, which you'd never get reviewing contracts and mergers all day.”
“Oh yeah.” She snapped her fingers. “I forgot.”
“You're good at the whole adulting thing, Charlie,” Lacey said. “Don't let the man get you down.”
Charlie suppressed a chuckle. Lacey had been her toughest competition in law school and had been on track to graduate cum laude before she'd decided to drop out. There were daysâlike todayâwhen Charlie wished she'd followed in her friend's footsteps. But whereas Lacey had decided she couldn't handle the stress that came with being an attorney, Charlie had thrived on it. Hell, she'd been raised by one of the top corporate attorneys in the state. The law was in her blood.
Lacey slid another Bloody Mary in front of Charlie, who dunked the skewer into the glass and took an olive from the tip with her teeth. Lacey asked, “What happened at the salt mines to make it a four cocktail sort of day?”
“Oh, nothing much,” Charlie replied. “A couple of weeks ago I agreed to head up a multiagency task force to take down an esoteric crime syndicate that's currently soliciting new members and may or may not be headed up by cops and maybe a senator or two. I'm going on day fourteen of almost no sleep and I'm pretty sure I'm on my way to an ulcer.”
Lacey paused and her blue eyes went wide. “I stand corrected. This isn't a four cocktail sort of day. This is a fifth of bourbon and eat a whole cheesecake by yourself sort of
Charlie laughed. “More or less.”
“Good for the rÃ©sumÃ©, though.”
True. Though if all Charlie was after was a shiny rÃ©sumÃ©, she would've joined her dad's firm like he'd wanted. She wasn't after those sorts of accolades. She didn't want to be respected. Charlie wanted to be feared.
She wanted those big-time criminals to quake in their boots at the mention of her name. She wanted them to know that when she decided to come after them, they could kiss their freedom good-bye. This task force was her chance to prove herself as a certifiable badass. It would make or break her career.