After bad booze in six bars, Castro’s room at the Wanderlust Motel beckoned him like the arms of a lover. At 4:00 a.m., the Vegas Strip dazzled like a dowager’s jewels in the distance, while the flickering neon on his hotel looked like a battered sequin on the pasties of an over-the-hill showgirl.
He scanned the area to make sure no one was lying in wait for him. A lot of guys wanted a pound of his flesh, payback for his past acts—or just the chance to treat someone like a punching bag to batten down their demons. His tired glance registered Lil Joe, a jittery speed freak who some nights had the $15 to rent a room, but more often just paced the broken sidewalk outside the motel. Lil Joe glared at him and paced backwards, away from Castro’s six foot two, well-muscled frame. “Is cool. Is cool,” said Joe through cracked lips.
A screeching car stopped at the end of the parking lot. The passenger door opened, followed by a scream and then a thump as the car sped away. Castro got to the spot in less than a minute. Looking at the body on the ground, he realized that being pushed from a moving car was the least of the girl’s problems. Her clothes were torn, her face pummeled, and a large pool of blood was soaking through the crotch of her jeans.
As he bent down to feel for a pulse in her neck, she croaked weakly, “No more, stop it.” Tears pouring down her cheek, she reached up and scratched his face with her broken nails.
Pinning her arm gently so she couldn’t reach him, he said, “I’m not going to hurt you.” But she didn’t seem to hear him through her sobs. She curled into a fetal ball as he fished his cell phone out of his pocket. He was about to dial when he heard the unmistakable metallic wallop of a round being chambered behind him.
He put his arms out to his sides and slowly straightened up, cursing himself for not considering that the driver might park the car and double back. But when he turned his head, he saw the motel manager, a tough old broad pointing a Beretta 9mm.
“I didn’t do it,” he said.
He realized how bad this looked, what with the girl down and the scratches on his face. Lil Joe could alibi him, but the wiry junkie had slipped away. He pivoted slowly, keeping his hands up, cell phone pointed to the sky. He knew Ted would have handled it differently. Ted could sweet talk any woman into doing anything. The man had the gift of gab. Castro could only understand a woman after months or years in her arms.
His blue eyes blazed at the older woman. “Dolores,” he said, “put down the gun and let me call 911.” He said it calmly, watching her image strobe in and out in the flickering light of the Wanderlust sign. If she didn’t lower the gun by the time he counted mentally to ten, he would pounce and break her arm.
Her gun went down. His fingers sped over the numbers and he gave their location to the emergency operator. As Dolores bent to soothe the scared teen, he dialed Ted. “We’ve got another one,” he said. “Black Mercedes. Nevada plates, FAN 231.”
By 7:00 a.m., the man who’d tossed her from the car was in custody. He’d stopped for a drink after his little errand, not even bothering to clean the blood off the passenger seat.
Ted and Castro watched his interrogation through the one-way glass in the Vegas police department where they were the DEA end of a joint LVPD/DEA investigation into a date rape drug simply called J. The women who were slipped this beauty became sedated, then aroused, then aggressive. It pushed them further than anyone would have imagined, a sick game to the men who used it. But young girls were ending up mutilated or dead.
The driver—clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer—claimed he was just helping out a friend at the Fantasy Resort on the Strip. “The girl was like that in the hotel room,” he told the interrogator. “Woulda been bad for business to leave her there.”
Through the glass, Castro could only see the back of the interrogator’s head, but he could imagine his eyes rolling at that comment. The interrogator said, “So, Joey, you’re telling me it’s good for business to throw one of the guests out of a moving car?”
Joey sat up straight, as if offended by the question. “She wasn’t no guest. A working girl like her booking a $1000 a night room? Get real.”
On the other side of the mirror, Castro thought about whether the owner of the Fantasy Resort, Frankie “the Bayonet” DiBondi, could be moving J. Why go for the piddly markup on a drug for lowlifes when you ran a legal brothel (a million a month declared on taxes, with an unimaginable sum socked away under the radar) and owned the hottest casino on the Strip ($150 million annually with everyone from Bette Midler to Shakira wanting to play the 5000-seat showroom).
“Why would the Bayonet move down the alphabet to J when he could make the big bucks moving H?” Castro said.
“We need still need to get on his ass,” Ted said. “Could be someone else dealing inside the Fantasy.”
Castro nodded. If this had occurred under DiBondi’s nose, what he did about it in the next 24 hours could tip them off to who was selling and, more importantly, who was producing the drug.
When they reached the Fantasy Resort, it was barely 9:00 a.m. Castro headed straight to the casino, the surest place to find DiBondi. The 70-year-old don had a penthouse in the hotel, but was constantly in motion, greeting guests, throwing dinners for the headliners, and storming past the blackjack tables, eyeing the dealers so they didn’t dick with his money. Sure, he had state-of-the-art security and a slew of ex-cops on retainer, but he was old school.
At the bar in the main casino, Castro caught sight of DiBondi approaching a blond-haired man in his 40s. Dressed in a navy suit with a prep school tie, the younger man stuck out in the casino, where the dress code encompassed either tuxedoed men escorting women in Cher-like beaded numbers or overweight Middle Americans in Bermuda shorts or sweat pants.
DiBondi put his arm around the blond man. But rather than buying him a drink, he steered the conservatively-dressed man toward the exit. Castro moved into the flow of people headed out of the sumptuous breakfast buffet so it wouldn’t be so obvious he was trailing DiBondi. But he needed to stay close. A valet was turning over a Cadillac with the plates FAN OO1 to the older man. Castro needed to make sure he was back in his own car with Ted before the man hit the road.
DiBondi handed his keys over to the guy Castro pegged to be a businessman. That term in Vegas covered a lot of territory. The DEA agent didn’t know what the connection might be to J, or even if there was any. Someone producing the drug would have known better than to show up at the casino dressed like that. And DiBondi wouldn’t have been seen in public with him. But this was going down strangely enough to make them both persons of interest.
Castro’s weary body, which hadn’t felt sleep for nearly two days, slumped over the wheel as DiBondi and his pal pulled into a gas station outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. It was their first stop since they’d left Vegas five hours earlier. Ted woke up as Castro eased on the brakes. “Fuck,” Ted said. “Where the hell is he taking us?”
Castro didn’t bother to respond. He switched positions with Ted and, once in the passenger seat, immediately fell asleep. When he next woke up, it was dusk and they were across the street from the Hotel La Fonda in Taos. He stepped out of the car, took a seat in the lobby and surreptitiously snapped a photo of DiBondi’s companion on his cell phone, transmitting the image to DEA headquarters for identification.
He and Ted waited until the two men got in the elevator before they approached the desk themselves, checking in as a gay couple. Each of them had now gotten a good five hours sleep and were pumped for whatever DiBondi dished out. Ted took Castro’s hand as they waited for the elevator. Once inside, Castro let go and laughed. “Next time,” he said, “remind me to get assigned a woman as a partner.”
“Nah, you love me,” said Ted. And he was right. He was Castro’s closest friend.
In the room, Castro looked out the window at the flame of the setting sun and noticed that the valet hadn’t parked DiBondi’s car. “Get ready to roll,” he said to Ted as he grabbed a map from the desk. “They’re just making a pit stop.”
They took the stairs back down. Ted disappeared into the park across from the hotel for a moment, then got into the passenger seat of the car, just as DiBondi and his buddy were pulling out.
Castro’s cell phone rang and he maneuvered his car onto the road, falling a safe distance behind DiBondi’s Cadillac. “He’s not in the system,” the voice on the other end said. The photo didn’t match any known felons or anyone with ties to the Mob.
“Much obliged,” said Castro, who hung up and turned to his partner.
“I heard,” Ted said.
“Doesn’t seem like family either.”
Ninety minutes later, the Cadillac turned onto an unpaved road.
“Think he made us?” Ted asked.
“Nah,” Castro said, as he cut the headlights and followed the other car. The Cadillac was still traveling at highway speed, churning up dust and small pebbles. The road passed along the edge of a quarry that was dug down hundreds of feet. “What’s the map say?”
Ted took a pen-sized flashlight and looked at their map, shielding the light with his hand so it couldn’t be seen from the other car. “Quarry for about a mile along the road, then the map is pretty much blank for maybe 10 miles.”
“What’s it called? Area 51?”
“Nope, nothing on it but the initials RSV.”
“Here, let me see.” Castro eyed the map without slowing down and the car veered sharply, bringing their right tires perilously close to the edge of the quarry.
“Shit, my man,” said Ted, “pay attention. DiBondi’s stopping.”
Castro turned left and pulled the car behind a bulldozer. Ted pressed his night vision binoculars against his face. Castro followed suit. DiBondi and his mystery driver had stopped about 500 feet further up the road. They were met by four men with long, black straight hair. Native Americans.
“RSV,” Castro said. “Reservation.”
They were tailing DiBondi because of his possible link to the new date rape drug. But they knew the Justice Department suspected the Mob was working its way into the Indian gaming industry and now Castro and Ted were watching a possible connection.
“Whatever tribe this is, it’s not doing that well,” Ted said. “Look at that wooden house. Pretty run down.”
Ted took his .38 out of the glove compartment. Castro already had his Sig Sauer .40 in a holster under his windbreaker. They got out of the car and walked another hundred feet, but there wasn’t enough cover for them to get closer.
Castro scrutinized the building, about 80 feet long and 20 feet wide. The arc-shaped roof had been created by bending a series of wooden poles and covering them with bark. He tried to remember something from his undergraduate class on Native American History at the University of Arizona. A longhouse. The four Native Americans had gone in, but left DiBondi and his driver waiting at the door. Maybe the Indians were deciding whether to invite the men from Vegas inside. Some longhouses were a big deal, males only, peyote, and major decision making. But wait, there was something going down. Some guy had shown up on horseback and was yelling. Castro raised his night vision glasses. Guy was prepared for some sort of war dance for sure, blue stripe of paint across his nose. Chief War Paint jumped down and blocked DiBondi’s path.
While the Indian was focused on DiBondi, his buddy was circling to the Indian’s right, behind the horse. Castro expected the blond man to pull a gun and shoot the rider. Castro aimed his Sig Sauer at the driver’s shoulder, but this would be a tough shot.
Suddenly Ted crumpled to the ground, and Castro dropped down, lunging toward his partner as he scanned the area for a sniper. Finding none, he looked at his friend, seeking out a wound. But Ted didn’t seem to be bleeding anywhere other than his nose. A screechy, wheezing noise was coming from his mouth. Castro inched closer. Ted was shaking and his tongue was swollen. In the dark, Castro thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. His partner’s face was swelling, distorting into some monstrous visage.
“Help,” spat Ted through lips that were swelling so much they cracked. His eyelids swelled over his eyes. Blood from his nose clogged his mouth, silencing further speech.
Castro shoved his arms under his friend’s, scraping his knuckles raw on the stones beneath Ted. He pulled Ted’s distorted body over the gravel pathway back to the car. “Hang in there. Don’t give up on me.”
He lifted the man into the back seat, putting a backpack under his head so he wouldn’t choke to death on his own blood. His friend was now shaking uncontrollably. He opened his blue lips in the shape of a scream, trying to suck in air around his swollen tongue.
Castro careened the car back onto the road. The tires churned up stones, but their patter didn’t disguise the sound of three gunshots coming from the direction of the longhouse and aimed at his speeding car.
Alex stepped back from the gene sequencer and looked at the four-color quilt on the computer screen that represented the sequence of the glycoprotein gene of the dengue 2 virus. Call her macabre, but stripped down to its chemical bases—the red, blue, green, and orange representing the A, C, G, and T of the genetic code—the gene was quite beautiful.
She entered the genetic letters into a computer program and a swell of music filled the room. A professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Peter Gena, had created a formula for turning the genetic alphabet of deadly diseases into musical compositions. Gena used the gene sequences of HIV, measles, and polio as the basis for his songs. When Alex ran the program on the dengue sequence, jagged notes collided with each other, with an occasional soothing tonal switch. A chilling composition, fitting the high fatality rate of dengue fever, a Southeast Asian killer.
Alex, who’d earned an M.D. and Ph.D in genetics at Columbia, had joined the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology—the AFIP—two years earlier to sequence the genomes of deadly epidemic diseases which the Department of Defense felt might be used in biowarfare against the United States. She also served on a government-wide commission led by the head of Homeland Security, Martin Kincade. The commission, populated with people from Homeland Security, the FBI, the CIA, Justice, and the National Institutes of Health, was charged with detecting emerging infections, analyzing the threat they posed, and initiating medical and social responses.
Her home institution, the AFIP, had more on its plate than laying in wait for possible bioterrorism. In fact, the traditional military men she worked alongside viewed her work as marginal, rather like collecting primroses or trying to find life on other planets. They were trained to deal with immediate risks—targeting the enemy or capturing a killer.
Situated on 113 out-of-the-way acres in D.C. near the Maryland border, the semi-secret AFIP oversaw forensic investigations in the United States and abroad involving the military and the executive branch. Congress also gave it a blank check to develop new technologies for national security, forensics, and traditional warfare. The AFIP’s equivalent of James Bond’s Q—Captain Grant Pringle—oversaw a bevy of researchers just a hallway away from her. But unlike his dapper British fictional counterpart, Pringle was an over-muscled weightlifter who’d grown up in Vegas.
Alex loved her work, but felt less thrilled about her workplace. She detested the military hierarchy, the baroque rules about secrecy, and the emotionless faces of many of the men she served alongside. Her natural response was to play the civilian card – coming to work in jeans and a turtleneck, letting her personal interests dictate which research she undertook, and finding enough ways to bend the rules that they seemed like overcooked linguini when she was done with them. Her best friend and the AFIP’s lawyer, Lieutenant Barbara Findlay, was often amused and occasionally infuriated by the way Alex maneuvered through the system. Alex kidded that she was Barbara’s evil twin.
The music hit a particularly garish note and Alex barely heard the knock on her lab door. She opened it and admitted Captain Randolph Stone, a pathologist from Walter Reed Hospital, part of the AFIP complex. She’d met him the previous month when she was asked to give a second opinion at the hospital.
“With that awful music pouring out of your lab, I felt sure you’d be applying electricity to a body with a jagged scar across his face,” Stone said.
“Did you stop by to place an order? Bride of Frankenstein for you?”
“Hmm, clone of Angelina Jolie?”
“Take a number, buddy.”
Stone smiled and leaned comfortably against a counter that held the bottles of the reagents Alex had used in this latest sequence run. He looked at Alex with the sort of glance she often got on the street from men who admired her package – the long curly blond hair, the curve of her jeans and turtleneck over her five foot seven frame. Most of the men at the AFIP were beyond that. They treated her like one of the guys. All except for Captain Grant Pringle, who turned leering into an Olympic-level sport.
This new pathologist was around her age, mid-to-late 30s, with an engaging smile and sun-bleached blond hair that, while still short, was much longer than the buzz cuts she usually encountered in the building. He handed her a folder. “I’m here to ask you a favor.”
She reached for the file. “Cloned girlfriend isn’t enough?”
“Nah, I’m up to my eyeballs in autopsies and I just got a call asking if I could take this report over to DEA. There’s no way I can leave the building right now.”
Alex bristled. “Why not messenger it? Or use one of the 800 soldiers in the building?” It was bad enough her boss, Colonel Jack Wiatt, ordered her to do things that any lab tech could do. At least Wiatt was old enough to be her dad. But surfer guy here?
“Sorry, I should explain. It’s a sensitive case. A DEA agent died yesterday in New Mexico while on the job. They’ve convened an investigation—brought in all the big boys—to see if he was using on the job. They want it delivered by a physician in case there are questions. You may not have noticed, but it’s Sunday and there aren’t exactly a lot of docs in the building.”
Alex opened the folder and paged through the report. Honestly, she thought, sometimes she flew off the handle too quickly. It wouldn’t exactly kill her to take a drive over to Arlington to drop this off. After all, Stone was doing a huge favor for her friend, AFIP pathologist Tom Harding, who was in Australia competing in a sailboat regatta. Stone was fitting in autopsies here at AFIP while running back and forth to Walter Reed for analyses of path samples in medical cases.
Alex looked down at the final line of the report. Death consistent with cocaine overdose. “I don’t see any tox reports,” she said.
“Body just came in this morning, lab results aren’t back yet. But his nasal membranes were completely eroded, just like you see with heavy users. And I found major organ failure—heart, kidneys.”
Alex nodded. It was a beautiful April day, cherry blossoms in bloom, and she had a full tank of gas in her 1963 yellow T-bird. A little excursion might be nice. “What’s the address?”
“DEA Headquarters is at 700 Army Navy Drive in Arlington.”
Army Navy? thought Alex. She couldn’t escape the military even on this detour.
“Do you have a contact there?”
He moved toward her and opened the file to the second page. “Milford. He’s the guy who requested the autopsy. Kept it out of the hands of the New Mexico medical examiner. Said the last thing DEA needed was publicity about their guy using coke on the job.”
Alex and Stone walked out of the lab together. “Thanks, Alex,” he said. “I owe you one.”
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
Hardcover: ISBN: 978-0312352721; $24.95; 304 pages
Available at local independent mystery booksellers, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Booksense.com.
All content © 2006-08 by Lori Andrews.