The dilapidated green coupe sat idling in the driveway of a house. After a visual sweep of the area, all Martinez was certain of was that the house was someplace outside Weston’s neighborhood. The style of homes on the street indicated suburbia. The yards were far too wide, the houses themselves too far apart to be anywhere but the suburbs. I’m thinking maybe the southwest fringe of Mission Valley, Martinez thought, referencing one of Manzanita’s older neighborhoods.
“We’re here,” Weston announced. He cut the ignition and climbed out of the car.
“’Bout time, Jefe. I thought we were gon’ to drive toda la noche.” Martinez grunted as he extricated himself from the doorless back seat and stretched his arms and legs.
“Can’t be too careful,” the supplier called over his shoulder. “Come on inside.”
“Wait up, Jefe,” the undercover man stalled. “My backside’s asleep, and your buyer’s still climbing out of this heap.”
“This better go down pretty fast,” Flatly called as he climbed out of the car. “I been tryin’ to buy for a long time. My time’s valuable, ya know.”
“Things will go fast enough once we’re inside,” Weston informed his riders. “Just get your butts up here now.”
“We’re comin’! Don’ blow a gasket, amigo,” Martinez called as he winked at Flatly.
The unlikely pair walked along the slightly sloped driveway. Martinez noted the house number enshrined in a lighted metallic box that was attached to the stucco exterior close to the garage door.
“Five nine five seven. I like those numeros, Jefe. Mind if I play them in the lotto next week?” the undercover man called.
“Thanks, Detective,” Mamba whispered as that information came through his headset. The batteries in at least one of the transmitters still had charge. He called out the address to Mulligan who broadcast it to the whole team.
* * *
Weston waited until the two men reached him, and the trio arrived together at the front door of a small, unpretentious dwelling. There was little to distinguish it from fifty others in the same tract.
This is good cover. I’d never have marked it as a supply house for a major drug trafficker Martinez thought. He wondered how many neighbors were on the payroll to keep the place anonymous.
Once on the porch, Weston rapped out a coded knock on the door. A pause then a single knock followed his first series. One ring of the doorbell and a repeat of the knocking pattern finished the ritual.
Martinez felt the sweat run down his sides as though attempting escape from his muscle shirt. Flatly shivered involuntarily as they waited for the door to open. But, instead of the creaking of hinges, a female voice called through a small wrought iron grate in the door at Weston’s eye level. The grate nestled behind four spindles of darkly stained wood, homage to an architectural style popular in the 1960s throughout Southern California. Yet, there was something not quite kosher about the spindles and the viewing grate. That bothered Martinez.
“I never open the door after dark.” Although the words were delivered with perfect inflection, the adrenaline in the speaker’s veins had her heart racing. Every time a new player entered her house, she reacted this way. She wondered if the racing heart and shallow breathing were normal, but she had no experience with which to compare. She couldn’t remember a time she considered herself normal.
“Smart move,” Weston said. “You never know who might be knocking. Is the party over?”
“Not yet. Can I take a message to someone inside?” the woman asked.
“I brought a friend.”
“Do I know him?”
“No, but you’ll like him. You both like to spend your money on the same kinds of things.”
Martinez did not like standing on the porch. They were exposed to all who walked or drove by. I’ve got to get us inside.
“I got to use the baño, Jefe,” he announced.
“Shut up!” Weston’s response was a combination of surprise and irritation.
The woman in the house just laughed.
“That’ll be all right,” the woman called. “Come on in.”
After the clicking sounds of locks disengaging, the door opened.
* * *
Mulligan’s patience was nearly exhausted. The time spent in tailing the green Ford had taken its toll. For the last twenty minutes, he had methodically beaten the steering wheel with his fist. Mamba was sure that he had no idea he was performing the act.
“Mike, I think—”
“Suspect vehicle stopped.” The static-riddled crackling of Stalling’s voice over the radio.
Mulligan wrenched his microphone from its holder with a spastic movement of his right arm.
“Where?” He spat out the single word.
“Third house on the right down Henry Court off Livingstone.”
Mamba flipped through the loose-leafed map book he’d been using to trace the route of the beat-up coupe. He scanned the page indicated in the index as he tried to locate Henry Court.
“I can’t find it, Mike.”
“Repeat that name, will you?” Mulligan barked into the car’s microphone.
“The sign says Henry Court.” Stalling’s voice had an edge of its own.
“I got it!” Mamba cried. His finger punched at the open map page with angry irritation. “Mike. It’s a dead-end street.”
Martinez’s voice crackled through his headset.
“Five nine five seven. I like those numeros, Jefe. Mind if I play them in the lotto next week?”
Mamba repeated the numbers loud enough for Mulligan to hear.
“Martinez says the house number is five nine five seven,” Mulligan overrode the current conversation topic.
“Roger!” Stallings reported. The other cars involved responded in kind.
“We’ve got Henry Court as a dead-end,” Mulligan said to Stallings as he dragged the conversation back to its previous thread. “Can you confirm that without blowing the tail?”
“I thought you called it a cul-de-sac out here on the coast,” Stallings responded. Dead air was all that greeted his attempted witticism. He sighed and forged ahead. “But, yeah, the street ends in a big circle maybe a hundred-and-fifty yards from the corner.”
Mamba shook his head as he spoke. “These guys are so sure of themselves that they deal from a dead-end street.”
“Only one exit isn’t the traditional set-up,” Mulligan agreed. He asked into the microphone, “What’s the back look like?”
“Hold on a minute.” One of the patrol cars involved in the tailing rotation pulled forward and turned left down the next street. Mulligan resumed his attack on his car’s steering wheel while he waited.
“Looks like it opens into the back of two yards on the next cul-de-sac,” was the report of the brief investigation.
“Thanks. Stallings, you sit tight. I’m calling in more back up. We’ll be there in two minutes.”
Mulligan switched to an open channel. He requested cars and officers for the houses on either side of the suspect home as well as the two houses that bordered the property in the rear.
He pulled his car up to the corner of Henry Court and Livingstone Drive. Stallings walked across Livingstone and leaned into the driver’s window.
“It’s all yours now,” Mulligan said.
“We’re on top of it.” Stallings accepted the assignment and asked, “You want to be a part of the bust?”
“I didn’t sit on my butt for two and a half hours not to!” Mulligan growled as he clambered out.
“Mike?” Mamba called from the passenger side of the car where he stood, leaning his elbows on the roof.
Mulligan looked at Stallings. Stallings nodded. The private investigator had earned a piece of the action.
“Come on, since you’re already here,” Mike said. “You don’t enter until we’ve cleared the building.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Mulligan turned to Stallings and said, “Take us in, Sergeant!”
* * *
Mary Carstairs was a native Californian, born in the Northern Cal quasi-coastal town of Ukiah. Her father was a logger, her mother an elementary school teacher. Precocious and smart, the brunette was a neighborhood favorite. It wasn’t uncommon for Mary to be the focus of attention of groups of varying ages as she sang, danced, or told a story to entertain.
Growing up as an only child, Mary had lots of time on her hands, time that required decisions on how to fill it. In elementary grades, after-school programs were the easy choice. She was an honor student. Expectations of teacher and family were high. Unfortunately, those expectations were dashed in a single afternoon.
Mary’s father died in a logging accident.
The lumber company’s insurance settlement was enough to pay off the Carstairs’ home but left little money for day-to-day living. Mary’s mom taught in a private school. The pay was low. To make ends meet, she took a second job, leaving Mary alone with a lot of time to fill.
Left to decide how to spend her free time, by eighth-grade, Mary’s choices had degraded from innocence to unsavory. The most common unsavory choices were smoking and beer drinking. Her once stellar academic performance went supernova, ending up a black hole.
Once in high school, Mary cleaned up her act enough to become a solid performer on the Ukiah High School Wildcats’ volleyball team. To stay eligible for athletics, she made sure her grades hovered around C level. She played the system with just enough B-grades to balance the D grades.
School days were full of positive activity. Besides playing volleyball, she was part of the school’s drama program. Mary was good enough on stage that the drama teacher allowed her to act more often than work as crew.
Unfortunately, weekends and off-season days, and nights, saw Mary revisiting her past discretions. By spring of 1982, her senior year, she thought she’d perfected living a double life. It took only one event to prove how wrong that assumption was.
Her last drama production ended in disaster. It was the final performance of the run, the only performance on a Saturday. Mary showed up late for her call time with a buzz on, a combination of weed and beer. She missed cues and blew lines.
Embarrassed and ashamed, in the days that followed she began to miss school. Her grade in drama class plummeted. She barely passed the course that was once her only A grade.
After graduation from high school, Mary dabbled in higher education at Mendocino Community College. She dropped completely out of school after three semesters, accumulating a GPA of 1.9 with only 12 credits on her transcript.
She left Ukiah with a boyfriend in 1984. The pair traveled up and down Highway 101 working odd jobs and camping for the better part of a year. After leaving her boyfriend, Mary fell in with a group of ne’er-do-wells. They became her pipeline for marijuana, but she was never arrested for possession or distributing Cannabis. During those years, she and the group with whom she ran were on the verge of extended periods of incarceration most of the time.
At the age of 24, she’d moved to Manzanita, California because she liked the sound of the name. Over the next two years, she’d ensconced herself in Sid Brewster’s local drug trafficking organization. She was bright, with savvy business skills, and pretty enough to be desirable to her supervisors—and to her buyers. She did what she needed to when she needed to do it. Insightful, with an outward aura of calm, she’d rocketed up the organizational ladder.
Now, Mary was known for her flirtatious personality and skewed, but strict, morality. She’d never been in a serious relationship with anyone in the organization, although she had more than one male dreaming of how things might end up. Those males misjudged Mary Carstairs.
Every man who’d had a date with Mary knew she was not available for anything more than food, maybe a joint or two, and some fully clothed cuddling. Exceptions to that trifecta were not allowed, unless she invited further advances.
Men who tried unsolicited advances left her home in pain. Mary saw to that by punctuating her displeasure with her kneecaps, elbows, or fingernails. Always bruised, and sometimes bleeding, none of those men were ever seen alone again in Mary’s presence.
By the time Flatly and Martinez landed on her front porch, she’d built a reputation as levelheaded and motivated. She was, without question, an untouchable flirt—except on her terms. Those within the organization agreed that if she had a weakness it was her special attraction for muscular men of color.
* * *
As soon as Weston, Martinez, and Flatly were inside, Mary Carstairs slammed the door behind them. Martinez noted the two deadbolts on what appeared to be a steel door in the brighter light in the entryway. That explains why the spindles looked out of place, he thought. They’d been added to the door to help disguise its metallic construction.
The steel door worried him. Large metallic objects often wreaked havoc with the signals from the department’s wires. He thought, I have to get out of this entryway. His head swiveled from side to side, looking for potential hiding places.
What he saw was another reason for the spindles on the front door. The smallish entryway was bounded on the back by a half-wall. Stretching between the top of that wall and the exposed ceiling beam above were four wooden spindles, oversized cousins to those on the door.
Before he had a chance for more casual observations or to finalize his plan, the woman snapped at Weston.
“What’re you doing bringing strangers here?” Her voice hardened, and her congeniality disappeared as she’d flipped the each deadbolt into place.
“Don’t worry, Mary. This is gonna be worth your while.” Weston turned to Flatly and asked, “Right?”
“I hope so, man. So far, all I gots from you is th’ run-around. I ain’t seen no crack yet.”
“You brought them here for crack? And you gave them my name? Weston, I should wring your neck!”
“Hey, just hold on,” Weston held up his hand in protest. He shifted his weight nervously from one foot to another. Mary’s reaction caught him off balance.
Martinez made a mental note, este mujer is the alpha dog in this pack.
“They want more than I had at my place. More than I’ve ever had at my place,” Weston whined in explanation. “Tell her, Cue Ball.”
“Sí, señorita,” was Martinez’s startled rejoinder. He’d been caught off guard by Weston’s request. The dealer was rattled. If I don’t do something he’s gonna implode or explode and do something stupid. “My frien’ wants a quarter K.”
Mary’s composed demeanor evaporated, but only for an instant. Her resolute glare rematerialized more quickly than it had dissipated. The amount requested was a major buy, even by her standards. A quarter K! That means uncut product. Why would— A competitor! These guys are buyers for somebody with serious coin. She visualized a potential career move.
“Maybe I was a bit hasty. I’ll get our supply. You can check the quality.” Mary was back in full emotional control when she spoke. She mentally berated herself for not checking the details before harassing Weston and for losing her cool. She needed to get to where Brewster could hear this through the bug her boss had planted in the house.
Smooth recovery, Señorita Maria. What’s your story? Martinez wondered.
“Pardóname.” He interrupted her as she turned away from the men. “My amigo and I still have to use your baño. I already tol’ Señor Weston that.” He had to stall. Things were moving too fast. He had to give Stallings and the team time to get set up. And, he had to get away from the steel door to update the rest of the team.
“They did ask, Mary. I forgot,” Weston admitted with more feet shifting.
“Get a grip, Weston. Big man, I heard you through the security hatch,” Mary said. “I was in no hurry, though. Truth be told, I’m kind of hoping for a bit of a show of your dance moves.”
Martinez shrugged, forced his knees together, and rocked back and forth, all with a grimace on his face.
“That’ll do,” she snorted through a laugh. “It’s the second door down the hall.”
“¡Muchisimas gracias!” The relief in Cue Ball’s voice was genuine even though it was not generated for the reason that the two drug dealers thought. “Come on, amigo. We’ll feel more like dealing en pocos minutos.”
He grabbed Flatly by the arm and directed him toward the hallway.
“Hold on!” Mary called before they’d gone three steps.
Martinez neck hairs stiffened. Cornered like a rat by a cat! He felt his muscles tighten.
“You got a name, big man? You already know I’m Mary. Mary Carstairs. But no parent ever named a kid Cue Ball.”
“Everybody’s got a name,” Martinez replied without turning around. It took all his self-control to keep that his relief out of his voice. He knew he’d never be able to mask his facial expression.
“Eveybody calls him Cue Ball,” Flatly said as he ran his hand over his partner’s head. He looked up at Martinez and shook his head before he turned toward Mary. “But who he’s gonna be is Wet Pants if we keeps standin’ here.”
Mary snorted a second laugh and gave Flatly the go-ahead gesture.
* * *
The transmission from Martinez and Flatly’s wires was less than stellar. Mulligan had shed his headphones and joined the ranks of the first-in officers. Stallings directed Mamba, the only remaining monitor of the transmissions from Martinez and his CI, to apply any and all tricks he knew to the surveillance equipment.
“We need more recon from the inside.”
“Once we’re a ‘go,’ you’re backup for the bathroom boys. And I mean far back.”
“I’ll be a clog beyond the p-trap.”
Stallings grunted an unintelligible response. Then he used hand signals to position his men around the house. Normal night noises predominated. Whispers of essential communication escaped the lips of the assembled men only on the rare occasions when there was no hand sign for what had to be done.
Mulligan was following Stallings gestures as closely as he could. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a silent protocol assignment. He bore down even more.
Between adjustments to the radio and his headset, Mamba strained to see what was happening outside the house. The crackle in the earphones returned his complete attention to the men inside.
Over the last several minutes, the only conversation he had overheard, and only parts of that, consisted of the antagonistic interplay between Weston and a woman named Mary. Comments by the two undercover men were infrequent and hard to hear. At first, Mary was unhappy with Weston for bringing Martinez and Flatly to the house. She’d mellowed when confronted with the amount of product they wanted to buy.
Martinez’s voice, the clearer of the two undercover men, was currently muffled by sounds of running water. Mamba strained to catch each individual syllable.
“We’re going in for the buy now,” Martinez radioed in. “You guys be ready because I’m not gonna let this go too far.”
“Hey, man, you better be more than ready,” Flatly added. “I think you pushin’ how much I owes you, Dancer.”
The sound of running water ended. As he exited the car, Mamba smiled a grim smile at his CI’s candor. He left the door open to avoid any unnecessary sound when it closed and hurried to the first officer he saw. He touched the man on the shoulder.
“I’ve got information for Stallings or Mulligan,” he whispered.
The only response was a gesture to his left. The officer’s attention was riveted on the bathroom window. Mamba glanced up as he left. The light went out.
“Mike!” The stage whisper startled the Lieutenant.
“What is it?” Mulligan snapped. “You scared about three years of life out of me! This better be important, really important!”
“Martinez and Flatly are about to make the buy.” Mamba ignored Mulligan’s tone. He’d been in this situation and knew nerve endings were exposed and raw. Focus was your closest friend and best chance for success. “You better take this.” He handed Mulligan the headset.
Mulligan mumbled something as he accepted the apparatus.
Mamba knew better than to ask him to repeat the comment. Instead he asked, “You know where Stallings is? I need to let him in on what I heard.”
“No. I haven’t looked for him since he stationed me here,” Mulligan answered as he slipped the headset on without taking his eyes off the house.
“I’m going back to the other side of the yard,” Mamba said. “Stallings told me to run back-up on bathroom duty.”
“Make sure they’re close enough to move in as soon as we’re inside.” He turned and looked at Mamba for the first time. “And you stay backed up—understood?”
“The officer in charge is all over it.” Mamba hustled away. Geez, Mike, you sounded just like Stallings for a second. This night’s been longer than I thought.
* * *
Martinez left the bathroom with Flatly following close behind. He stopped when his saw that neither Mary nor Weston occupied the entryway. They didn’t come after us, he thought. They must have made a left into the living room. He’d made a mental note that the first opening he’d passed on the way down the hallway opened into the living space. But, he needed confirmation of his hunch.
“Hey, amigos!” Martinez shouted. “Where’d you go?”
“We’re in the living room.” Mary stuck her head through the suspected opening. “What’re you drinking?”
“Tequila.” Martinez smiled.
“No tequila, I’m afraid.” Mary smiled back. What is it about you? Your name can’t be Cue Ball. She tore her gaze away, looked at Flatly, and asked, “How about you?”
“I could use a beer,” Flatly replied. “Draft beer,” he added after considering what his undercover persona would drink.
“We’ve only got draft in a bottle.”
“Well,” Flatly pondered. “I guess that’ll haf t’ do.”
“Make it two drafts then,” Martinez decided to go with his partner’s choice. The man’s calm decision-making was impressive. I’ll bet he was a terrific counterpuncher in the ring.
With drink orders received, Mary stepped back into the living room.
Martinez and Flatly followed their hostess through the opening and found themselves in a snug, formal living room. Mary directed them to a pair of matched overstuffed chairs. She continued over to the wet bar to get the beers.
Martinez surveyed the room. Mary, in tight jeans and a loose blouse, crouched down as she rummaged around in a small refrigerator at the end of the bar. I hope you’re looking, Big Man.
Weston was over by a bookcase fingering a book. An unknown third person sat on a barstool. From the back, it was difficult for Martinez to determine the sex of the person. The haircut was one of those “unisex” jobs that expensive salons specialized in. Jeans and an untucked T-shirt disguised the shape of the body perched on the stool.
Martinez leaned back and decided that whether it was a wimpy guy or an underdeveloped female was unimportant. Who it was was the critical issue.
“When do I gets to check my stuff,” Flatly asked with a slight waver in his voice.
Martinez sensed that the boxer’s confidence was waning. Hang in there, amigo. Then he prayed that the beer didn’t push him too far the other direction. Overconfidence was the cardinal sin in undercover work.
“Right away,” Mary said as she handed Flatly a long-necked brown bottle. She sauntered over to the Latino, smiled invitingly, and offered him one of the two beer bottles she gripped in one hand.
She found herself more than a little excited by the size, demeanor, and clothing of the man she now looked in the eye. While part of her actions as she delivered his beer had been orchestrated, she found herself wanting more of his interest. Whatever your real name is, you are smoking hot.
“Gracias, señorita,” Martinez murmured. I don’t have to fake my attraction. This woman is one hundred percent eye candy. He extricated one of the bottles from between her fingers with calm precision.
Martinez felt Mary’s eyes undress him as they roamed over his body. She pursed her lips. A half-wink completed the come-on. Make your move. I won’t resist. She pirouetted to emphasize her desirability.
He stared at the woman. Designer jeans with a contoured design overstitched in white thread appeared to be painted on her legs.
When she was facing him again, she ran her index finger down the entire length of the beer bottle.
He licked his lips. You’re making it tempting to see how good we are together. If you get out of this.
“Good brewski,” Flatly stifled a burp as he wiped his lips with the back of his hand, completely destroying the moment. He set the bottle on the table between the two chairs.
“I’m glad, amigo,” Martinez roused himself in response to the informant’s comment. He made a mental note to keep this sexy drug dealer at arm’s length. I’m not Cue Ball. I’m not Cue Ball.
At the sound of the bottle touching the wooden top of the table, the mystery figure at the bar turned and fixed Flatly with a dour glare.
“Mary, get that bottle, will you.” It was more a demand than a request.
As Mary prepared to bus the bottle, she berated herself. She’d been distracted by the Latino. I should have known my live-in drug dealing partner’s bat-like ears would hear a bottle hit the end table without a coaster.
“Right away, Billy.” Mary broke off her unfinished visual invitation to the undercover cop. She picked up the empty bottle and flaunted what her tight jeans hugged as she sauntered back to the bar. In spite of her recent chastising, she couldn’t help thinking, Now’s when I wish I’d have kept a pair of my high school volleyball shorts. Then, you’d really get an eyeful!
“How much coke do you want?” Billy inquired. Martinez gaze locked onto the man, but his head never moved. His mind raced as he visualized the list of names Mamba had collected. He hadn’t found a Billy before Flatly answered.
“A whole quarter K.” The CI enjoyed the feeling of power advertising for such a large quantity of drugs gave him, and the beer had loosened his tongue a tad.
“That should be no problem,” Billy responded. “But, I need to see some sincerity on your part.”
“He has the dinero with him, señor,” Martinez provided the desired response. It’s show time! “Let him see your money, amigo.”
The former boxer obliged and produced his roll of bills.
As Billy slid off the barstool, it was obvious that he was a thin man. He walked to where Flatly sat, removed the bills from the boxer’s hand, and rifled through the stack of currency.
“This all you got?”
“It’s more than I need,” Flatly snapped as he grabbed the money back from Billy.
Martinez shook his head. His partner continued to amaze him. A minute ago he appeared completely lost. Now he’d reacted perfectly when the pressure came down on him.
Billy backed off half a step but never changed expression. He called to Weston.
“Bring it over here.”
Weston pushed the EJECT button on the VCR on the shelf where he stood. A videocassette emerged from the bowels of the recorder. Martinez nodded in appreciation. Using a dummy videocassette to hide drugs was pretty slick.
The undercover agent stood. He intercepted Weston.
“Let me take a look, amigo.” Martinez waved his beer bottle towards Flatly in an invitation to join him in the middle of the room. The sound transmission of this part of the conversation would be perfect. He also wanted the men involved in the bust to be able to see everyone in the room with one glance as the entered the house.
Billy shot a look at Martinez as he took the cassette from Weston. He wasn’t comfortable around the giant Mexican, but money was money. As Martinez and Flatly watched, Billy worked the end of the black plastic case loose with his penknife. He used the same knife to slit open the sandwich bag that lined the inside of the fake videotape. Completing a trifecta of uses, he stuck the knife into the white powder and offered it to Flatly.
The boxer’s hand trembled only slightly as he licked his right index finger and dabbed it in into the powder. He stared at the drug-coated digit before he put a tiny taste into his mouth. He ran his tongue over his lips before he spoke.
“Let me test it, too. But, por favor, don’t think that I don’t trust you, Señor Billy.” But I don’t—not an inch. “The palate of mi amigo is not as sophisticated as mine.” Martinez bragged. He needed to be sure of the quality before he gave the prearranged signal.
With a shrug, Billy offered the other side of the tiny blade to the agent. The stuff was most likely high-mid-grade quality at best, but still better than the flashily dressed boxer had ever used.
Martinez sniffed the powder. He was not about to lick his finger and try a taste. If this isn’t cocaine, it could be anything. If this is cocaine, who knows the purity or strength of the stuff? He squeezed a pinch between the tip of his thumb and his middle finger. He held his index finger just above the powder, blocking the Billy’s vision of his slight of hand. He rubbed the side of his thumb and index finger together and studied the supposed result with a critical eye.
“The color is good,” was his determination. Only then did he lick his index finger, harmlessly mimicking Flatly’s taste test.