Jack Bertolino stood on the balcony of his loft in Marina del Rey, tending a dry-aged New York steak on his prized possession, a top-of-the-line Weber gas grill. He
didn’t miss winter, not one little bit. Here he was manning the barbecue in his new uniform, a black T-shirt and jeans, while his cousins were chasing heart attacks shoveling snow off their Staten Island driveways. That image never ceased to put a smile on his face. That and the salty ocean breeze that floated in over the marina.
Jack nursed a glass of cabernet and watched the long line of bright white FedEx trucks return home from their final deliveries and park in neat rows in the lot next to his building. It sure beat the sight of patrol cars jammed onto the sidewalk in front of a precinct house.
Early evening was Jack’s favorite time of day. The sun was just starting to paint the clouds a muted orange. From his fourth-floor vantage point, Jack could see a string of jumbo jets in the distance, silently making their final approach to LAX. Stacked eight planes deep, their slim silver bodies glinted in the setting sun. For the first time in Jack Bertolino’s life, he felt at ease.
His cell phone chirped, snapping him out of his reverie. He tossed some Japanese eggplant onto the grill, closed the lid, and checked his cell phone screen for the name of the caller.
“How’s my Italian stallion?”
“Mia . . . ,” he said instantly, his tone neutral, giving away nothing.
“All the planets are aligned, Jack. It’s time for you to man up and make an honest woman out of me.”
Jack couldn’t help but smile. Mia’s throaty voice and light Colombian accent had the power to make a grown man weep. More important, it could make a bad man give up his secrets. He hadn’t really been surprised when he received her text. He knew it was only a matter of time. Payback’s a bitch.
“What can I do for you, Mia?”
“It’s what I can do for you, papi. My lips . . . they’re still magic.”
“I love it when you talk dirty.”
“Only for love or money.”
Although Jack was enjoying the back and forth, he was no longer in the business. “Why are you calling, Mia?”
Mia dropped her act as well. “We need to talk.”
“It’s not a good time,” Jack said as he opened the lid of the grill and pressed his fork against the steak, checking for doneness.
“I’m not in New York.”
“That’s why I’m in Los Angeles.”
Jack didn’t reply right away. He did a quick analysis of how Mia could know he was living in L.A., what kind of trouble she might be in, what kind of blowback he was going to suffer just from having this conversation. He came to the instantaneous conclusion that however this new wrinkle in his life played out, it would definitely have an impact on his newly found state of bliss.
Mia answered some of his unspoken questions. “I’m still connected, Jack, and you’re still on the radar screen. There are certain people—who will remain nameless, because I’m not on your payroll anymore—who are not convinced you’re out of the game.”
“I’m happily retired,” Jack fired back, wondering if his response sounded forced, wondering why he cared.
“And happily divorced?”
Jack didn’t respond. His private life was none of Mia’s business. He had strict rules when dealing with confidential informants, a line in the sand he never crossed. But Mia had the kind of beauty that could make a man contemplate leaving his wife, his job, and his kids. Jack had never taken the bait, but had to admit he’d been tempted.
Mia was one of the best CIs in the business, and she and Jack had done groundbreaking work together.
With the help of Mia and DEA agent Kenny Ortega, Jack and the team of NYPD narco-rangers he headed up had put away a heavy hitter in the cocaine trade. Manuel Alvarez was the head of a Colombian drug cell that had been importing a thousand keys of coke into Florida on a weekly basis, and the poison was dripping into New York City. Jack and his group had put away a major cartel scumbag, and Mia had gotten rich. The feds had a financial equation in place when dealing with CIs. The greater the quantity of drugs an informant was responsible for delivering, the more money it was worth to the United States government. They were happy to give to get. Mia did very well for herself at great personal risk. Informants had a short shelf life. Once a major domo got busted, the cartels worked very hard to discover where the “sickness” had come from. If your name ended up on the short list, you turned up dead.
Jack had made a promise to Mia that if things ever got too hot to handle, he would do whatever he could to help her out of the jam.
Mia was turning in her chit. “Meet with me in an hour, after I get settled in.”
“I’m about to have dinner, Mia.”
“Vista Haven Road, 3468. You owe me, Jack.”
“It was a two-way street,” he reminded her.
“And I don’t want it turning into a dead end.”
Jack was about to protest, but she clicked off. He turned back to his grill, but now he was unsettled. Mia had always been a cool customer, but there was an edge of panic in her voice. Jack let out an irritated groan. He shut off the grill with a hard snap. He wouldn’t be able to eat anyway until he found out what the hell was wrong.