43 MISSING: Detective Emilia Cruz Book 6
Ready, Emilia Cruz Encinos told herself. Absolutely ready.
Her fingers beat a nervous tattoo on the steering wheel as she waited for the heavy steel gate to roll aside. With a final groan of metal-on-metal, it locked into the open position. Emilia took her foot off the brake and the heavy Suburban lumbered past the high concrete wall surrounding the police station in central Acapulco.
The uniform assigned to the guard shack trotted to the driver’s window, forcing Emilia to stop and roll down her window. “Hey, Detective Cruz,” he said. “Haven’t seen you around lately. Been on vacation?”
“Sure,” Emilia lied. “What’s new?”
“Lieutenant Silvio’s kicking ass and taking names,” the uniform said, eyeing her with interest.
“Like nobody expected that,” Emilia heard herself say. His face was familiar but she didn’t know him well.
The uniformed officer gave an awkward laugh, slapped the Suburban’s white paint, and went back to his post.
It was very early and the parking lot behind the squat stucco building was mostly empty. Emilia tucked the Suburban into a space, killed the engine, and gulped air. Her heart was racing, which was ridiculous. She was a detective who knew how to do hard things, going back to work.
In more than 12 years, she’d only taken two breaks, both after being injured in the line of duty.
The first time she’d been shot.
This time was . . . worse.
Her eyes flicked to the rearview mirror. The uniform was watching her from the guard shack. With exaggerated gestures for his benefit, Emilia remade her ponytail, as if her hair was responsible for the delay in getting out of the car. Giving her hands something to do helped focus her breathing.
Emilia finally grabbed her shoulder bag from the passenger seat, and got out of the vehicle. In black jeans, loafers, denim jacket buttoned over her empty shoulder holster, and her detective badge on its lanyard around her neck, she could pretend it was just another day.
Because she was ready.
Emilia forced a tough strut into her walk as she crossed the parking lot and yanked open the rear door into the station.
Puentes, a young uniformed officer, was behind the holding cell desk. He gave a start when he saw her.
She shot him with her thumb and forefinger, the same as always.
“Detective Cruz,” Puentes said haltingly.
I’m not going to shoot you. Emilia smiled, although her face felt brittle and her heart still thumped uncomfortably fast. “How are you doing?” she asked.
“Good, good.” Puentes took a step away from the counter, putting more distance between them. “You?”
“Glad to be back.” Emilia felt his eyes follow her down the hall to the detectives squadroom. Puentes had seen her pull a gun on another cop. Emilia had been a fool to react to the garbage coming out of Detective Gomez’s mouth, but the fear on that pendejo’s face had been worth the mess that followed.
She pushed open the door and relaxed a fraction when she saw that the squadroom was empty.
The big space had been updated by the previous chief of detectives, Lieutenant Baez, but it looked even better than Emilia remembered. More organized. The walls were plastered with pictures and evidence cards from current investigations, but everything was aligned instead of the usual jumble of tacks and scribbles. The dozen metal desks each boasted two monitors. In the far corner, chairs upholstered in gray tweed ringed a sleek conference table. On the other side of the room, near the copier, a matching dark wood hutch held the coffee maker, a tray of clean mugs, and a built-in mini refrigerator.
Madre de Dios. New computers? A refrigerator?
“Cruz.” Her former partner, Franco Silvio, filled the doorway to the lieutenant’s office. “Grab a cup of coffee. We can talk before the rest of the crew reports in.”
“Morning meeting still at 9:00 am?” Emilia asked breezily, like it was an ordinary Monday.
“Same as before,” Silvio said.
Emilia dropped her shoulder bag on her desk and got herself a cup of fresh coffee. Silvio must have just made it, knowing she was coming in early.
A good sign.
She followed him into the office, past the placard on the door reading Lieutenant Franco Silvio. He closed the door and pointed to the pair of gray tweed chairs for visitors. As Emilia sat, he went behind the wide desk, coffee cup in hand.
Silvio’s new responsibilities fit him well; he’d traded in his white tee shirt for a button-down, but still wore jeans and a shoulder holster and gun. The wiry crew cut, surly expression, and heavyweight boxer’s physique remained unchanged.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“Great, just great,” Emilia caroled. “How’s it feel to finally be the grand jefe?”
Everyone had known Silvio was long overdue for promotion even before she become his partner. His storied past, as well as a campaign to derail his career by the head of the police union, had kept him on the street until his talents won out.
“Finally getting some respect around here,” Silvio joked but his expression wasn’t light. “Been a little worried about you, Cruz.”
“I’m ready to hit the ground running,” Emilia said. She unbuttoned her jacket so he could see the empty shoulder holster. “Do you have my weapon?”
“Later.” Silvio slid a folder towards her. “Here’s your next assignment.”
The desk was that of a busy man, with stacks of case files and random pads and printouts. The walls of the small office were newly painted and a framed poster announcing a championship match hung on the wall over a filing cabinet. Emilia recognized it from the room in Silvio’s house where he kept his boxing memorabilia. That fight had been his last on the professional circuit in Mexico.
There were no other decorations. No picture of Isabel, his late wife.
Emilia put down her mug on the desk, next to a brass lamp casting a soft glow over the piles of papers. “The El Acólito case, right?”
“Nope,” Silvio said smugly. “The national task force.”
“Task force?” Emilia exclaimed. “Is the El Acólito investigation a national task force and nobody told me?”
Silvio shoved the file folder closer to her. “No, it’s the Amistad 43 case in Michoacán.” he said. “The one and only national task force.”
Emilia blinked at him. “Seriously?”
“Any detective would give their right arm to get this kind of career shot,” Silvio went on. “Not to mention an all expenses paid trip to Mexico City.”
“I can’t go to Mexico City,” Emilia said, still not quite taking in his words. The Amistad 43 task force was a big deal. The media in Mexico had been talking about it for weeks.
“You have a week to get yourself together,” Silvio said.
Emilia flapped a hand at the door to the squadroom. “No, I’m working the El Acólito case right here.”
“You’re not fit for duty,” Silvio said bluntly. “No armed assignment.”
“Six weeks administrative leave,” Emilia countered. “I did everything I was supposed to do.”
“You never talked to the police counselor about what happened,” Silvio said.
“I’ve done nothing but talk my head off about it,” Emilia said, but her voice sounded uncertain in her own ears.
“I got nothing official, Cruz,” Silvio said. “No doctor sign-off. Nothing.”
“Nobody made you go to counseling after Isabel died.” Emilia went into attack mode. Taking orders from her former partner was going to be bad enough, but at least Silvio should understand what she had to do. After, all, when his wife was murdered, he’d gone after the killer.
“Lieutenant Baez didn’t make it mandatory,” Silvio said.
“I covered for you,” Emilia pointed out. “When Baez asked if you had anger issues, I said no, Franco’s just being his normal pendejo self, he’ll be fine.”
“I didn’t ask you to.”
“But I did,” Emilia said. “You owe me, Franco.”
Silvio calmly folded his arms, heavy muscles straining the rolled sleeves of his shirt. “You have to be cleared by the police counselor before you can come back to the squadroom.”
Emilia pressed a hand to her head. A vein throbbed with anger under her finger. He didn’t use it much, but she knew Silvio had a heart buried under the stone face and mountain of muscle.
“Franco,” she said, forcing herself to sound calm. “I’m here to find El Acólito. He’s been running around free for six weeks. Who knows how many more people he’s killed, raped, or sold. All I want to do is find him. There’s no need to play games.”
“I busted my ass to get you on the national task force,” Silvio said, unmoved by her reassuring tone. “You need something that gets you away from Acapulco and time to get past what happened. The federales are on the El Acólito case. They’re handling it.”
“If I go, and I’m not saying I will,” Emilia said. “Will I have access to the El Acólito files? Can I be working with the federales? If not, you know they’ll fuck it up somehow. They always do. Giving up our jurisdiction—.”
“Stop right there, Cruz,” Silvio interrupted. “The bottom line is that the El Acólito investigation isn’t your turf. Never going to be. I won’t have you involved again.”
So much for wheedling. Emilia’s temper exploded. “Who are you to tell me—.”
“I’m the fucking chief of detectives for the city of Acapulco.” Silvio slammed his hand down on the desk, making the two mugs rattle. “It’s my responsibility to make the assignments around here. Take it in, Cruz, that’s the way things are now.”
Emilia clenched her fists. “That’s not fair, Franco, and you know it. I deserve—.”
“How’s Hollywood handling things?” Silvio interrupted. “This task force is as much of a favor to him as it is to you. You’re probably turning his hair gray.”
Silvio’s nickname for hotel manager Kurt Rucker often irritated Emilia but this time it stopped her in her tracks. “I . . . I haven’t seen him in a couple of weeks,” she said.
“Hollywood’s been travelling?”
“I moved out.”
“You moved out of the Palacio Réal?”
“Yes.” Emilia had traded the penthouse apartment she shared with Kurt on the top floor of the Palacio Réal for a monk’s cell in the rectory of San Pedro de los Pinos. It was much easier to hide from her life in a church than in Acapulco’s most luxurious hotel.
Silvio spun his chair, tapped his keyboard, and swiveled the screen to show Emilia a spreadsheet. “You didn’t register a change of address.”
“I’m . . . it’s a temporary place,” Emilia mumbled. She couldn’t stay in the rectory forever. “I’ll do it when I’m settled.”
“What about your car?” Silvio demanded.
“My car?” After everything that had happened, the clunky old Suburban’s fate was the last thing Emilia was thinking about.
“You’re responsible for an official vehicle.” He thrust a finger at the screen. “We’re supposed to know where it is at all times.”
Emilia snorted. “Aren’t you the petty bureaucrat all of a sudden.”
“Okay, Cruz,” Silvio said, tamping down his obvious annoyance. “We’ll sort it out later. The important thing is this task force assignment. You could be the cop that solves the riddle.”
“You’re sure that’s what this is?” Emilia asked. “The Amistad 43?”
Emilia opened the folder, curious in spite of herself. Like everyone else in Mexico, she’d seen the news reports about the task force. It was a last-ditch effort to investigate the disappearance of 43 students from a rural teaching college from the village of Amistad in the state of Michoacán. The students had gone to Lindavista, a nearby city of about 80,000, to commandeer buses for a trip to a protest rally in Mexico City. But they’d been intercepted by local police, rounded up, and turned over to a drug gang.
The students were never seen again.
The Mexican Attorney General’s office was under fire for fumbling multiple efforts to find out what happened. The task force would be the fourth investigation into the case in a year and a half.
The first investigation had taken place under the auspices of local law enforcement in Lindavista, assisted by the federale police and dogged by charges of collusion with the drug gang. When that petered out without finding either the students or their bodies, the Attorney General’s office asked the Mexican Army to step in. The federales and the Army battled over jurisdiction, made three arrests in six months, and uncovered dozens of bodies in mass graves scattered across the state of Michoacán, none of which proved to be those of the 43 missing.
The third effort was a high-profile investigation sponsored by the Organization of American States. Eight senior law enforcement and justice department officials from as many Spanish-speaking countries descended on Mexico City to review the documentation and conduct a neutral investigation. After two weeks, they held a press conference, accused the Mexican government of stonewalling the effort, and closed up shop.
The international press sided with the Organization of American States and excoriated the Attorney General, providing an opening for the families of the 43 missing to renew their calls for transparency and accountability. As all of Mexico watched in anger, the narrative shifted from finding the 43 missing students, to protecting the current administration’s shaky reputation.
The latest effort would create a task force of experienced law enforcement officials from across Mexico with no previous ties to the case. The hopes, not only of the families, but of a nation were riding on it. Being chosen as a member of the task force would have enormous career implications.
“No cop in their right mind is going to pass up a chance like this,” Silvio went on. “This is the investigation of the century. Chief Salazar already sent your bio to the Attorney General’s office in Mexico City. Plan for at least 90 days there.”
“Three months?” The compressed timeline, coupled with a rush of self-doubt that this was more responsibility than she could handle, set Emilia off again. “I’m not going to Mexico City for three months,” she said. “I want to be here, hunting for El Acólito. Listen, I don’t need a new partner. I’ll work alone. Liaise with the federales if you want. But it’s my case. I have to find him.”
Emilia slapped the folder closed and tossed it onto the desk, knocking into Silvio’s coffee cup.
“You’re not listening!” Silvio caught the mug as it skittered off the desk. “You’re assigned to the Attorney General’s task force to investigate the missing 43 students from Amistad. Effective immediately.”
“Tell Chief Salazar to send somebody else.”
“How many different ways do I have to tell you, Cruz?” Silvio thundered. “You’re not cleared to work on the street. You didn’t talk to the doctor. I can’t have you in the squadroom. Not yet.”
“What are you saying?” Emilia demanded. “I’m too fucked up to stay in Acapulco?”
Silvio scowled. “I’m saying use the time in Mexico City to get your head together.”
“Now that you’re the big jefe,” Emilia spat. “You’ve forgotten what it’s like to work a case, is that it? Or is this your chance to finally get a woman out of the detectives squadroom?”
Silvio scooped up a pen and a spiral notepad and whipped them across the desk top. Emilia barely had time to react, just managing to snatch the pen out of the air before it hit her in the head. The blur of paper landed in her lap.
“What the fuck, Franco?” Emilia exclaimed.
“It’s either the task force,” Silvio said with iron in his voice. “Or write out your resignation.”
Emilia gaped at him. It slowly dawned on her that he was serious.
“Now,” Silvio said.
“Impressive leadership style,” Emilia said weakly.
Silvio put his hands flat on the desk and waited, just like she’d seen him wait out suspects in an interrogation room.
Emilia shoved the notepad and pen to the floor, picked up the folder, and stood. “Thanks for the exile, Lieutenant.” She loaded the last word with as much topspin as she could.
Silvio got to his feet. “Look, this is not how I wanted the conversation to go.”
“Poor you,” Emilia said sarcastically.
“If you run into problems, call Lieutenant Baez. He’s in Mexico City now.”
Silvio held out his hand to her.
Emilia shook her head, her whole body tight with anger. Silvio didn’t move.
She finally slid a hand into his, expecting an impatient clench. To her surprise, Silvio pulled her into an awkward hug. Emilia broke away first.
“When I’m in Mexico City,” she said, one hand on the doorknob. “Will you call if anything happens with El Acólito? Like, an arrest?”
“If I can.” Silvio ran a hand through his bristly crew cut. “Call the police counselor before you go.”
“Emilia,” Silvio said. “Until you do, they’re not going to give you a medical clearance. Or your gun.”
“Good to know.” Emilia wrenched open the door, grabbed her shoulder bag and left the squadroom.
She shot Puentes with her thumb and forefinger as she charged past him at the holding cell desk.
Once in the Suburban, Emilia cranked the air conditioning until it rattled the folder she’d dumped on the passenger seat. As her anger cooled, she realized that Silvio had unwittingly handed her a gift.
A head start on the hunt for El Acólito.