Blood's Echo by Isabella Maldonado is the 1st in a new series featuring Phoenix detective Veranda Cruz, who is dead set on taking down the Villalobos Cartel—however, the ruthlessness of her quarry demands a ruthless edge of her own.
Detective Veranda Cruz leads an elite task force on the Phoenix Police Drug Enforcement Bureau. Bartolo Villalobos is the heir apparent to the most powerful cartel in the world. No one in the department suspects the secret motive behind Veranda’s obsession with the cartel . . . until an operation goes horribly wrong.
Targeted by an increasingly unstable drug lord, Veranda must protect her family and stay clear of adversaries within the force while she sets a trap for Bartolo. As the desert action heats up, Veranda and her new Homicide team―along with an arson investigator who kindles a flame for her―are all drawn into a deadly gambit. Taking down Bartolo is the ultimate goal, but is Veranda ready to trade life for justice?
Five hundred kilos of white death snaked through downtown Phoenix. As the tractor trailer lumbered toward the warehouse district, Detective Veranda Cruz of the Phoenix Police Drug Enforcement Bureau crouched beside a cinderblock wall with her team. She squinted against the midday glare and peered down the alley. Sweat trickled along her spine under her ballistic vest. She glanced at her watch. The delivery was six minutes overdue.
Sergeant Fromm’s voice carried through her earpiece. “Air support confirms target vehicle is approaching.”
Finally. Veranda inched back to be sure she wasn’t seen from the street. Her pulse quickened as she prepared for the takedown. Her hand rested on the grip of her holstered Glock. The plan was for the tactical team to stop the truck when it reached the loading dock, then make entry into the warehouse and detain everyone inside. Veranda and her team would then move in to take charge of the investigation.
More than thirty Phoenix Police Department officers and detectives lay in wait over a three-block grid in a sector known as “the Duce.” The nickname originated in the twenties, when the area was filled with produce warehouses, some of which remained. From her informant, Flaco, Veranda had learned the Villalobos cartel used one of the buildings as a distribution center. Flaco had revealed that Bartolo Villalobos, comandante in charge of narcotics trafficking, would personally take delivery of today’s heroin shipment. Two years of painstaking investigation were about to pay off. The other detectives had accused her of an obsession with the cartel. If they knew the truth, they would have her thrown out of the Drug Enforcement Bureau. None of that mattered now. She would put cuffs on Bartolo at last.
Black-clad tactical personnel hunkered in rapid deployment formation in the alley opposite hers, their armored vehicle hidden several blocks away. Veranda tilted her head up and spotted a counter sniper on the roof across from her. She knew two more peered through rifle scopes perched atop surrounding buildings. She flicked a glance at the detectives from her team lined against the wall behind her.
The streets were abandoned. Municipal offices were empty on Sundays, and the scorching summer heat drove most pedestrians inside. In the distance, she heard the rumble of a semi grind through its gears as the driver downshifted to turn a corner.
Her cell phone vibrated in a nylon pocket on her vest. She tugged it out, scanned the text message, then pressed the transmit button on her radio. “All units, target vehicle is rerouting. Repeat. Target is changing course. We need to reposition.”
A moment later, Sergeant Fromm spoke in her ear again, “I have verification from air support. Target has just turned southbound onto Jackson. We’ve been compromised. Abort the operation.”
She cursed and mashed the transmit button. “All units stand by.” Her mind raced. If Fromm would agree to deviate from the ops plan and move the tactical team, they could still seize the truck. She might not catch the king rat in the trap, but she could prevent the drugs from poisoning her city.
There was no time for finesse. She pushed the button again. “SAU can redeploy to intercept at Dawkins and Eighteenth.” SAU, the Special Assignment Unit, was the name for the Phoenix Police tactical team. Her heart pounded as she waited for Fromm’s response. The countermand of her supervisor’s orders was a breach of protocol. Borderline insubordinate.
Everyone assigned to the operation shared the radio channel. The silence stretched as police personnel spread throughout the net of their perimeter waited to hear how Fromm would react.
The SAU Sergeant would have heard her transmission, but had to follow procedure. Her muscles tensed as she heard the SAU leader seek direction from the supervisor officially in charge of the operation. “Sergeant Fromm?” he prompted.
Fromm sounded irritated as he responded. “Do it.”
SAU members and Drug Enforcement Bureau detectives ran in every direction. Patrol cars screeched down alleys. The stench of hot tires hung in the air.
Dante Washington, one of her fellow DEB detectives, touched her elbow as the others raced across the street. “What happened, Veranda?”
“No idea, I just got a text from my informant. All he said was they were changing routes.” She pushed away from the wall. “They’ve still got their load though.”
Blades whirred in the background as the helicopter pilot broadcast through her earpiece. “Target vehicle turned again. Now headed eastbound on Main.”
“That’s two blocks west of here.” She sprinted down the alley.
“Wait for backup, Veranda.” Dante chased after her. “The rest of our team followed the SAU guys.”
She ignored him. Racing around a corner, she spotted a tractor trailer grinding to a halt. The driver’s door swung open and a figure jumped out, legs pumping as he hit the ground.
Veranda slid her Glock from its holster. “Police, don’t move!” she yelled to his retreating back as he darted into another alley. “Shit!” She ran after him into the narrow side street and skidded to a stop. The driver pushed an elderly bystander over the iron railing of a short flight of cement stairs that led to the rear door of a produce warehouse. She flung her body under the falling man just before he hit the pavement. As she fought to get air back into her lungs, a metal warehouse door slammed shut.
“You okay?” She holstered her gun and looked the old man over carefully. He groaned, but nodded.
She vaulted up the stairs and yanked the door open. She could barely make out a figure on the far side of the vast space. He disappeared through a side exit. She dodged crates of corn, onions and watermelon overturned in her path, spun and darted back onto the cement steps. She ran to the side of the warehouse to intercept him there. As she rounded the corner of the building at full speed, she slammed headlong into Dante.
Dante recovered first. “Which way did he go?”
She pointed. “I’ve lost sight of him, but he ran out of this side door. Did you see him?”
Dante shook his head. “He’s gone.”
“The hell he is.” She bolted ahead, eyes searching for any sign of the suspect.
Dante pounded up behind her. “We’ve got the semi with the shipment. We don’t need the driver.”
She narrowed her eyes and turned to face him. “My intel, my bust, my rules. Nobody walks.”
“Fine. Let’s start with this side street then.”
She scanned the area. A rustling noise caught her attention. She spotted a dumpster halfway down the alley. “If I was trying to get away, I’d lie low. Find a place to hide.”
Following her gaze, Dante snorted. “No way is the dude gonna hide in that. It’s already a hundred and fifteen out. The inside of that dumpster’s an oven. He’d be extra crispy in minutes.”
“He’s not a rocket scientist and he doesn’t have a lot of choices.” She pulled her Glock back out of its holster and motioned to Dante.
Leather creaked as he slipped out his gun and followed her. They approached the dumpster at right angles, weapons trained on the heavy lid.
She slowed her breaths, and then nodded. Dante jerked the lid open.
“Police, drop your weapon!” Her vision constricted to the small space inside the reeking trash container. Sound muted. Time slowed. The metallic ring of a gun barrel pointed directly at her. Her gaze took in the whitened skin at the first knuckle of an index finger on the trigger.
Blood bloomed on the man’s white undershirt. He clutched his chest with his free hand and slumped into the garbage.
She jumped inside the dumpster, taking care to land on the pistol in the driver’s slackened right hand.
Dante landed beside her and placed two fingers to the man’s neck. “Nothing.”
An hour later, Veranda sat in a cramped booth in the rear section of the police mobile command center as the engine rumbled under her seat. She figured the brass had to call the behemoth, filled with the latest electronics and equipment, out to a scene at least once a month to justify its existence.
Two men stared at her across a laminated table that jutted from the wall. The athletic one wore a gold shield clipped to his belt and had introduced himself as Sergeant Diaz. The older one said he was Detective Stark. She swallowed a lump in her throat. Every police shooting was investigated. Procedure. Protocol. It didn’t matter what they said. She was guilty until proven innocent.
It was her first fatal shooting, but she knew that everything depended on how she handled this interview. She had killed a man, something the Department did not take lightly. Because she could be prosecuted criminally, they had read her Miranda rights, offered her a union representative and a lawyer. It was a trap. If you asked for a lawyer, you looked guilty. If you didn’t, you looked stupid.
A digital voice recorder rested on the table next to a circular coffee stain. Diaz switched the device on.
She drew in a breath and hid her sweating hands under the table. “Let the games begin,” she muttered.
Diaz narrowed his eyes and turned the recorder off. “This isn’t a game.” He leaned forward. “I don’t know if you understand that you’re on the wrong end of an interrogation, Detective Cruz, and you’d better take it seriously.”
She held up her hands, fingers spread. “I’m an open book. Fire away.” This was not getting off to a good start.
Diaz switched the DVR on again. “The date is Sunday, July seventeenth. The time is fourteen hundred hours. Present for this interview are Sergeant Richard Diaz of the Professional Standards Bureau, Detective Samuel Stark of the Violent Crimes Bureau Homicide Squad and Detective Veranda Cruz of the Drug Enforcement Bureau.”
She recognized Stark. The legendary detective had the highest closure rate in homicide. He’d been there since she joined the department thirteen years ago and showed no sign of retiring. His thick silvery hair and mustache were contrasted by black eyebrows. His gray eyes bored into her.
Diaz leaned forward. “We are conducting a joint initial interview of Detective Cruz regarding the use of deadly force during the arrest of an individual suspected of transporting heroin.”
Diaz glanced at the man next to him. “Detective Stark is leading the criminal investigation, and I am conducting the departmental investigation into this matter.”
She faced quadruple jeopardy. An officer could be terminated, sued and jailed for any use of force deemed unjustified. Finally, a federal case could be brought for violating a suspect’s civil rights. The departmental and criminal interrogations usually occurred separately, but they’d informed her they would conduct the initial interview jointly and then split the investigations. She clenched her fingers, unsure if the deviation from protocol was good or bad for her.
Stark’s rumbling baritone cut through the silence. “Detective Cruz, you’ve been advised of your rights and you’ve also signed an official Notice of Investigation. You have elected not have an attorney or a union representative present for this interview. Is that correct?”
“Detective Cruz, you have to speak. The voice recorder will not reflect that you nodded our head in agreement.”
“Yes, I was read my rights, received my NOI, and waived counsel.”
Stark shook open a pair of reading glasses, put a notepad on his lap and pulled out a pen.
He’s a dinosaur. She wondered if he used a typewriter for his reports. She glanced at Diaz, who propped an iPad on the table and unfolded a keyboard.
“Detective Cruz,” Stark slid the glasses onto a crease halfway down his long nose. “How did you develop intelligence about the shipment?”
“I have a confidential informant who’s a member of the Villalobos cartel. I can’t provide his name outside my direct chain of command, but he’s officially registered as my CI at the Drug Enforcement Bureau.”
This would be her strategy, she decided. Answer all of their background questions in detail. Appear forthcoming. “He’s been feeding me info about shipments and other Villalobos family business for the past two years. After a couple of months, I had the first major bust from his intel. I asked my Sergeant for a task force exclusively to run interdictions on the cartel.”
Diaz adjusted his screen. “For the record, an interdiction is what DEB detectives call it when you intercept a delivery in transit?”
“Yes. We’ve seized tons of drugs, thousands of weapons, and millions in cash, vehicles and other property.”
“How is your task force set up?” Stark asked.
“My supervisor, Sergeant Fromm, coordinates it. We have agents from the FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshal’s Office, National Guard, the state police and several local departments. We operate out of the fusion center at DEB headquarters.”
Stark appeared to contemplate her response. “So the Phoenix Police Department has oversight of the task force?”
“We do. The Villalobos cartel uses Phoenix as its U.S. distribution hub. Since we’re a large department with a lot of resources, the Feds are happy to support us as long as they get a piece of the action when we make a big seizure.”
Diaz leaned forward. “What about jurisdiction?”
“All Phoenix officers on the task force are deputized as federal marshals. It gives us a lot more arrest and prosecution power and we don’t have to worry about jurisdiction if we leave the city. We’ve had to do that sometimes when my CI gives me something outside Phoenix.”
Diaz narrowed his eyes. “What you’re saying is that Sergeant Fromm is technically in charge of the task force, but you set the agenda because they’re working from your intel?”
She needed to be careful here. “The Feds on our task force have access to international databases and the latest equipment. They also come in handy when diplomatic issues are involved, but Fromm put me on point. Since it’s my CI, I’m in charge of picking the target shipments so I don’t burn him.”
Diaz considered her for a long moment. “How do you choose the shipments?”
“Interdictions take a lot of advance work and planning. I couldn’t stop every single shipment. I targeted the ones that would cause the most damage to the cartel. The operations I set up were some of the largest in the history of our department.”
“What’s your end game with the cartel?” Diaz asked.
“I’ve been building a racketeering case against Bartolo Villalobos. He’s the family member who runs their entire trafficking division. If I don’t catch him in possession, it will probably take me another year to compile enough evidence to hold up against the best lawyers drug money can buy.”
Diaz quirked a brow. “In possession?”
Veranda nodded. “My CI told me we’ve seized so much of the cartel’s product that Bartolo would personally oversee today’s shipment. My goal was to catch him with the tractor trailer at his warehouse. Then I could use evidence from the previous interdictions to tie him in to all of it. Unfortunately, he was one step ahead of us. The warehouse was empty.”
Stark glared at Diaz. “We’re getting off track. Your CI texted you to advise that the truck changed routes?”
She turned to Stark. This was the minefield. Time to shorten her answers. “He did. I have no idea why they would reroute. All of our other interdictions have gone like clockwork.”
Diaz straightened. “When the semi altered course, you ran through back streets to intercept it on foot?”
“I knew I could get there faster than our vehicles.” She shrugged. “And the truck was too big to maneuver well in side streets.”
“What happened when you approached the semi?” Diaz asked.
She knew the trick. Ask an open-ended question, hoping the interviewee would ramble and reveal something.
She gave the minimum response. “I saw the truck’s cab door open. The driver jumped out. I ordered him to stop, but he took off.”
“Did you see a weapon?” Diaz looked like a bird dog on point. Eyes locked on hers, he sat motionless, waiting for her response.
“Not at that time. I lost him when he ran through a produce warehouse. Then I met up with Detective Dante Washington from my task force.” She hesitated. “I mean our task force.”
Stark scribbled on his notepad. “What did you say to Detective Washington?”
“I told him we should clear the dumpster in the alley. I thought the suspect might have tried to hide.”
Diaz raised his eyebrows. “You didn’t wait for more backup to search the alley?”
“No. It seemed like two detectives were enough to clear one dumpster.”
Stark stifled a chuckle.
Diaz reddened. “Once the lid was up, what happened?”
Another open-ended question. “I recognized the driver crouched inside. He had a gun pointed straight at me. I could see him start to squeeze the trigger.”
“You say you saw him squeezing the trigger?” Diaz glanced at Stark as if he wanted confirmation that this was ludicrous.
She sensed the need to explain. “Time seemed to slow down so that I could see his finger barely move a fraction, then everything sped up and it was over in a split second.”
Stark waved his hand in a dismissive motion. “You’re describing time distortion. Common in these situations.”
Diaz didn’t look convinced. “What was Detective Washington doing?”
“I don’t know. All I could see was the gun pointed at me.”
“Tunnel vision,” Stark said under his breath.
Diaz seemed determined to latch on to an issue. “Did you identify yourself prior to discharging your weapon?”
“Yes, but his finger remained on the trigger.”
He dug for more. “Did you hear Detective Washington radio for backup, or the dispatcher ask for your location?”
“No. I couldn’t hear anything.”
Stark waved again. “Auditory exclusion. Also common.”
Diaz glared at Stark before returning his attention to Veranda. “Did you attempt to render assistance after she subject was no longer representing a threat?”
“Yes, Dante and I jumped into the dumpster and gave him first aid while we waited for rescue. Fat lot of good first aid will do when you have a forty-five caliber gunshot to the heart.”
Stark’s mustache twitched.
Diaz let the silence stretch out. Finally, he gave her an appraising look. “Do you have anything you would like to add to your statement at this time?”
He glanced at his watch. “This concludes the initial interview with Detective Veranda Cruz. The time is fourteen twelve hours. Detective Cruz, please ensure that you are available for further interviews as the investigation into this matter continues.” He leaned forward and switched off the recorder.
Veranda was spent. Bartolo had slipped through her fingers again. In the back of her mind, she worried about her CI. Flaco had not contacted her since his last text. She stood and turned to leave.
“Detective,” Diaz said as he came up behind her. She glanced over her shoulder but did not answer. “Here’s my card. I want you to call me anytime, day or night, before you conduct any operations involving the Villalobos cartel.”
At this, she turned to face him and gripped the card in his outstretched hand. “I’ll certainly call you if there’s anything you need to know.”
He closed his hand over hers, holding the card firmly in place.
“That’s not what I said, Detective. I don’t want you to run interdictions while I conduct my investigation. There may be repercussions from your actions today.”
He took a step closer so they were only inches apart and locked eyes with her. “You’re playing a dangerous game with stone cold killers, Detective. I don’t like it.” He released her hand, the business card still in her grasp.
She spun on her heel and smoothly pulled open the door with a concerted effort to portray a sense of calm she did not feel.
Copyright © 2017 Isabella Maldonado.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Isabella Maldonado retired from law enforcement as a Commander of Special Investigations and Forensics. During her long career, she was recognized with a Meritorious Service Award and a Lifesaving Award, and she was selected to attend executive management training at the FBI’s National Academy. Isabella is the immediate past president of the Phoenix chapter of Sisters In Crime. She lives in Mesa, Arizona.