Johnny didn’t ask me for a third blog entry but I’ve had such fun with the first two and I was thinking about the first time I went undercover and, since I got his Blogger username and password (didn’t work undercover all those years for nothin’) I figured I’d share this little historia.
Every Holiday season sometime near La Fiesta del Neustra Señora de Guadalupe the staff at the downtown Chicago FBI and DEA offices get together for a dinner out. It’s a dress-up affair supposed to remind us that we don’t just occupy the same building a few floors apart but we’re on the same side. We’re supposed to mingle a bit, even if the G-men think of us as gun-happy Cocaine Cowboys and we think of them as suits.
So in my first year fresh from the Academy I’m sitting at a round table with other chicas from the Money Laundering Unit checking my watch way too often. Andy Pratt from Accounting sits next to me, trying to pick me up as usual. He’s a little overweight and his deodorant gave up hours ago. There are damp circles under his arms.
“Hey, Selena, have you tried this dip? It’s spicy, like you.” Andy bites into a tortilla chip and grins, chipotle mashed between his caps.
I sip from my glass of ice water and think about splashing him in the face with it. “Sorry, I haven’t,” I say. I’m feeling warmer than before so I shrug out of my black Ann Taylor jacket and hang it on the chair.
“Heckuva holiday party, huh?” Pratt says, chewing, looking around the hotel ballroom. “Mustacost a pretty penny to rent this joint.”
I tug absently on my silver hoop ear ring, admiring the crystal chandeliers and the garland decor twinkling with lights. Across the table, beyond the poinsettia centerpiece, two male Special Agents flirt with female clerks from the Financial Investigation Unit. The men haven’t shaved in order to keep their street look and they’re in ill-fitting suits they haven’t worn for ages.
“They prob’ly used the cash those guys took in the Aurora bust last week,” Pratt says. “How much was it?”
“Half mil, I heard,” I say with a pout, turning to the kitchen doors where Latina servers in sharp black-and-white uniforms emerge with salad bowls clicking on platters. Some of them probably commuted from those Aurora neighborhoods. Huge Mexican presence there, bigger than the Pilsen neighborhood where I grew up.
I guess I was still peeved they never asked me along on the Aurora op. I speak perfect Mexican Spanish and the Charger carries street cred among the hot rodders and low riders. I scored as high as any man on the exams, ran the firearms range in two-and-a-half minutes with 85 percent of my fifty rounds in the target’s kill zone, and scared the bejesus out of my male classmates on the high-speed chase track.
But they parked me at a desk from Day One to answer phones and file the Money Trail Initiative Reports submitted by the Special Ops Division. They said it was to make the best use of my business degree from Loyola that my father insisted I earn. But I’d heard the snickers: Chicks are too soft to pull the trigger.
You know the real reason you’re here at all, don’t you? Agnes Bloomberg, the office gossip, confided to me behind her knuckles. Di-ver-si-ty, honey. They needed to report more female and Hispanic recruitment. They got to check off two boxes with you.
“Mami, I think I might quit,” I told my mother that night in tears. “I didn’t join up to sit at a desk all day.”
“What did I tell you, mija,” my mother said, shaking a dish towel at me. “That is no place for a woman. Here, scrape these for me so I can wash them.”
I slid a spatula across the plates with the leftover cherry pie and flan. “I trained hard to be in the street. Where the action is.”
“That is no way to find a husband,” my mother scolded. “Y el que diran?”
“Who cares what they’ll say?”
“They’ll say que pasa? A good-looking mujer like you, out of college and still no husband?”
“I have a career to build.”
“I tell them it’s because you are too skinny. A man wants a woman who is llenita, with a fine caderas.”
“My butt is big enough as it is, Mami.”
“Maybe it is good you are at a desk, inside, out of the sun. You’re dark enough. Outside, your nose will cast a shadow like a sundial. Then what man will have you? That is good enough, pequeña hija. Give me the plates.”
A server drops a plate of chopped iceburg lettuce and tomatoes in front of me.
“Salads?” Pratt spits. “That’s girly food. Where’s the meat?”
“Excuse me,” I say, bunching my napkin and throwing it on the table.
“Hey, aren’tcha hungry?”
I don’t answer. I grasp my clutch purse and weave around tables toward the cash bar. On the way, a seated silver-haired woman in ruffles grabs my arm.
“Pardon me, miss,” she says, wiggling a mug, “but when you get the time, could you bring me more coffee?”
I pull away without a word.
“Maybe she doesn’t speak English…” a voice behind me trails.
I stand in a short line at the bar, arms crossed, tapping my Sergio Rossis. I can feel my face squeezing. Could you bring me more coffee? I mouth. The nerve.
“What was that, miss?” asks the Latino barkeep.
“A screwdriver, por favor, y va fácil en el hielo porque duele los dientes.”
“Ho-kay, not much ice,” he says. The pinched lips and the glint in his eye say you’re not really one of us. He reaches down for a glass and mutters pocha.
“What was that?” I fire back.
“Six dollar, please.”
“Míreme, look at me in the eye. That’s not what you said.” It was an insult, as bad as agringada, so Americanized no longer truly Mexicana, a sell-out.
“Six dollar,” he repeats.
“This one’s on me,” comes a man’s voice from behind me. A ten-spot flaps at my ear ring.
I brush it away. “I’m in no mood, mister—“
“Boss, to you.”
The blood rushes to my face. It’s the Special Ops Unit supervisor, Colin Bragg.
“Mr. Bragg,” I blurt out, startled. “What a surprise.”
“Call me Colin,” he says. “We’re not at the Academy anymore. Listen up: I need a date.”
I stick out my lower lip. “A date? You’re asking me out? Are you kidding?”
“Not like that,” he says. “C’mere.” He stuffs the greenback in the barkeep’s jar, takes my elbow and guides me out of the man’s ear shot. “My team has been working up a food chain and the last guy we flipped to become a CI (reader: that means confidential informer) introduced me to his distributor who’s having a house party tonight. We hear it’s gonna be big. Might be a cartel connection. He told me to show up with a date.”
“Since when do dopers ask their guests to come with a squeeze?”
“This is upscale, Selena. The party is in a penthouse. I rented this monkey-suit for that party, not this one.”
I give his tux the once-over. The crisp bow tie looks like a double exclamation point under his Adam’s apple. Then it hits me. “You mean this is for right now?”
“What do you say?” Bragg says. “I’ve cleared it from above. You won’t even have to change. Only one thing I ask.”
My heart is hammering. I finally get to see some action. “Sure. What’s that?”
“Let me do all the talking, all right? Act dumb.”
“You mean, like I can’t speak?”
“Not a peep.”
“You said there was a cartel connection. Won’t you need my Spanish?”
He draws his finger across his lips like a zipper. “Silencioso.”
It's almost funny. He means callado. I make a face. “You want me to smack bubble gum, too?”
“C’mon, Selena. The less you know and the less talking you do, the more likely we won’t blow the cover. I’ll brief you on the way over. For starters, your new name is Selena Peña. I’m Colin Bernard. My middle name. Then I don’t forget it. Anyway, just be sure to call me by that name if you have to call me at all.”
“Got it. Is the rest of your team our surveillance back up?”
“It’s just us.”
“I don’t kid about stuff like this. You know in a case like this any back up team is just an ambulance with the engine running. We’ll be long gone if something goes wrong. Still up for it?”
I step back to the barkeep, seize the screwdriver glass from the countertop, and drain it. Plunk the glass down hard. The ice rattles. “I’m ready.”
To find out what happened at this party, you’ll have to read VIPER. Johnny’s got about 100 pages to go.
OK, OK, I’ll just say I called Bragg by his real name and almost got us killed. Ay, such an ingénua then.
As usual, I’ve talked too much, pèrdon.