In Too Deep
Fog in California's Central Valley was a creature not to be trifled with. It swallowed buildings, cars, and people without a sound. The fog took more lives in the county than burgeoning gang wars. A trickster on par with Loki, it manipulated distances, making people believe they had plenty of time to slow down, when in actuality they were seconds from becoming intimate with the rear bumper of a semi-truck. Surviving the fog was the most difficult part of life in the valley. Or so Meghan thought.
Meghan Sterling tugged the scarf around her neck tighter and tucked the ends into the too-big uniform jacket hanging off her shoulders. Cold crept in on the fog's heels. The warehouse parking lot she patrolled was damp, freezing, and didn't make her job any easier. Whose brilliant idea was it to become a security guard? She cursed and shoved her gloved hands in her pockets. It was time to make another pass around the back quarter of the property. Whoop-dee-doo. More weeds and fog. Not to mention forced interaction with the two men stuck working the graveyard shift with her.
Walking with her chin tucked into her scarf, Meghan made her way behind the massive warehouse. Why farmers spent so much money protecting a building full of oranges, she had no clue. The money paid her expenses, but it wasn't worth the frostbite and vampire-like work hours. She'd need a month-long vacation on the beach when the job was finished.
"Let's grab a bite to eat," a man said from around the corner of the warehouse.
Meghan stopped before she stepped into view, listening to her coworkers. The lack of movement made her colder. She had no desire to trade not-so-witty banter with them. They were okay on the eyes, actually possessed brains, but ran out of non-manly things to talk about after five seconds in her company. She couldn't make herself pretend to be interested in the Superbowl.
"All you think about is your stomach, Jarlan. Give it a rest. We're not done here. You can eat on the way home."
"I'm tired of fast food. When's the last time you sat down to a nice warm meal, Rich?"
"Too long to remember, but we agreed to this job. We can't leave Clara to watch the place by herself."
Jarlan laughed. "She'd piss herself watching shadows if she knew the truth."
Meghan held her breath. Six months lurking and waiting were about to pay off. She tucked in closer to the warehouse wall. Her boot heel caught a pebble and ground it into the asphalt. The noise was deafening to her ears. This is why I'm not a ninja.
Cover blown, she plastered a smile on her face and stepped out to meet them near the back door, measuring her pace so it didn't look like she'd been listening in. "Have the oranges turned into man-eating monsters yet?"
Rich shook his head and grinned. "No, not yet. All's quiet here. What about the front, Clara?"
Meghan rolled her eyes, afraid for a microsecond they'd stick from the cold. "Not even a roach. What's the point of babysitting produce at three in the morning?"
"Money." Jarlan clapped Rich on the shoulder with one of his massive hands.
Could the guy be any bigger? He should work for the WWF, not waste time securing produce in the middle of nowhere California. Then again, if he was who she thought he was, his size had a purpose. She needed to keep an eye on him.
"Money isn't everything, friend." Rich tucked a strand of his long brown hair into the knit cap pulled over his ears. "We're almost done for the night. Will you be okay by yourself until dawn?"
Nodding, Meghan waved them off. "Nothing ever happens out here. If something does, I'll eat my boots."
Jarlan's hazel eyes fell to her feet. "Not much leather there. You'd have better luck getting a full meal out of a rat. They're big enough out here, away from the city."
Rats? Meghan trained to face the humanity's monsters, but rats made her skin crawl with their naked tails and sharp teeth. Out in the sticks, they were the size of cats. She stole a look around the employee parking lot. A brown blur skittered over the pavement near the eastern fence line. Her shoulders tensed. Please, don't let it be a rat. She'd much rather face anyone stupid enough to cut the fence with three security guards standing in eyeshot.
A leaf tumbled into the jaundiced light puddled on the asphalt. Meghan shook her head and rolled her shoulders to shake off the tension.
The big man laughed. "Try not to bludgeon any foliage to death while we're gone. If something posing an actual threat does come along, use the phone in the guard's office. Stay out of the warehouse. Without the code, you'll send an alert to the police and I'll be stuck doing enough paperwork to level a forest. Take care, Clara."
Rich flipped a wave and the men headed for their cars parked near the front gate. They couldn't be more different. Rich was tall, but Jarlan stood easily a foot taller than her. Jarlan's black hair never grew over a quarter of an inch in the six months she'd worked security alongside them. He must have scowled at it in the mirror one too many times and his hair refused to grow any longer for fear of incurring his wrath. Jarlan joked quite a bit, but when he didn't want to speak, he wouldn't. Rich at least attempted to hold civil conversations. And Rich didn't look like he could bench press a car.
Neither were safe to be alone with. Not if the intelligence she'd received was to be believed.
Meghan finished her walk around the back of the property and slipped into the small guard shack beside the locked front gate. Jarlan and Rich drove off the short driveway onto the street. Their taillights turned the fog blood red. With them gone, she gave into her desire to curl up beside the small space heater she'd brought. It clicked, warming too slow for her comfort.
"Might as well take care of business."
Picking up the phone, she braced the headset against her shoulder and punched in a number she remembered better than her social security number.
"You've reached the Osbourne's. We're not in right now, please leave a message."
"Hey, Mom. It's Clara. Still no luck on the apartment hunt. Can you save the classifieds for me? I'll pick them up tomorrow."
Meghan hung up and rubbed her frozen forehead. Waiting for results was the worst part of going deep cover. It took weeks to establish her legend as Clara Osbourne, working god-awful hours with the security firm until she talked her way onto the warehouse gig. It wasn't like the CIA would send her the money she needed to pay rent. Her cover needed to be organic, untraceable. In other words, she actually needed the damn job she pretended to work.
The heater clicked. Meghan wiggled her toes inside her boot and cursed. They were so cold, moving hurt. Was it possible to get frostbite without temperatures dropping below thirty degrees? She wasn't sure, but her toes screamed, "Yes," when she scrunched them together in a vain attempt to encourage warmth from the heater to work into her frozen flesh.
After almost two hours hiding inside the guard shack, Meghan grabbed her flashlight and headed out to do her last sweep around the property. She made a pit stop outside the front door to the warehouse and jiggled the door handle. Like every night she tried, it was locked. She didn't have enough know-how about the security system to disable it and slip inside to get a good look at what was actually stored in there. The security company said Emerald Produce stored citrus. Then again, they wouldn't come out and say, "By the way, the company is a front for a Russian sleeper cell." No, that'd make her job too damn easy.
She finished her walk around the property and ducked into the relative warmth in the guard booth to finish the end-of-shift paperwork the guys left behind. How kind of them. Her handwriting was nearly unreadable, but she refused to take off her gloves to scribble notes about how quiet it'd been during her eight-hour shift in the fog and cold. Not even a rat to keep me company tonight. Thankfully.
Grabbing her purse, flashlight, and lunch bag, Meghan locked the shack. She climbed behind the wheel of her truck. Saying a prayer, she turned the key and the engine sputtered to life. Along with the lack of help with her rent, the CIA refused to grant her enough to buy a semi-reliable vehicle. They gave her enough cash to get to Fresno, California, buy a car, and feed herself for about two weeks. Until the first check from her security job came in, she lived in her truck and hit a rent-by-the-hour motel on a stretch of Golden State Blvd nicknamed Motel Drive to shower. It was a wonder she hadn't caught an STD from looking at the bathrooms.
Her drive home was a twenty-five minute trip up Clovis Avenue to her apartment. The complex wasn't anything to write home about. Five two-story brick rectangles surrounded by mostly empty fields, but the area had the lowest crime rate of everything she found in her price range. Meghan parked in the spot designated as hers and took a breath to brace herself against the cold outside. She bee-lined down the sidewalk and into the middle of the sprawling complex, shivering despite the jacket, scarf, and gloves. The latter made finding the right key for her door a pain in the ass. She managed after calling the key an asshole—twice.
Dark and depressing was an understatement when describing inside of her apartment. The lone second-hand recliner sat opposite the staircase up to the bathroom and bedroom. The rest of the living room was empty. Meghan dumped her armload on the card table serving as her kitchen table and headed straight upstairs for a shower. She hoped to hell the hot water heater worked. If she had to go to bed freezing and smelling like farmland, the meeting with her handler in the morning would seriously suck.
"You smell like something a cow spit up."
Meghan glared across the table at an older, strawberry blonde version of herself. Janet's nose wrinkled, and she couldn't blame the woman. Meghan smelled more than ripe, despite the spit bath she took before getting dressed. "The water heater blew up last night and the complex manager just happened to forget to tell me or even leave a note. I swear, the guy gets his rocks off inflicting as much misery as possible."
She picked at her half-eaten stack of pancakes to give herself somewhere to look other than the pity in Janet's eyes. Janet asked to come to Fresno and act as her handler, a go-between from the CIA, just to keep an eye on Meghan. They'd gone through their CIA training together, despite Janet being twenty years older. Since day one, they clicked. Janet became the best thing Meghan had to a mother in a damn long time. Her kindness made up for twelve years without her mom, nine without a parent to call her own. There was a hole in her heart when she thought about her parents. Meghan was only three when her mother collapsed in the park near their house. The medical examiner said there wasn't anything anyone could have done. She had a heart condition none of them knew about until it was too late. Meghan's father spent three years blaming her for her mother's death. Until the afternoon when he plowed his car into oncoming traffic. His drunkenness killed himself and a family of four. The youngest child was a boy about her age.
The only thing that made her life after worth a damn was the fact that the CIA loved to bring on people with no families. It made going deep cover easier. Meghan wasn't sure whether the old tale was true or not. The closest thing she had to family sat across from her, holding a mug of lukewarm diner coffee and looking concerned.
Meghan shoved a bite of pancake in her mouth. "I'll be fine."
"You always are." Janet ran a hand up the back of her boy-cut hair—her critical-thinking move. Nothing good could come from it. "You could use this to your advantage."
"And do what, pose as a bum outside the warehouse during the day? I think they'd catch on eventually."
Janet shook her head. "Ask one of the other guards to use their shower. We need some sort of break in this case, even if we expose just one of these men as KGB."
"I take it the soil and water samples aren't yielding anything."
"Nothing I've found in the samples would end with the type of damage we were warned about." Janet scanned the mostly deserted Denny's before she continued. "Ceres is sinking fast unless we can find more information to tell us we're barking up the right tree, or if we're even in the right forest."
Project CERES, the official title, was basically Janet and Meghan busting their asses to make a blip on the radar piece of intelligence into something substantial. The CIA was having a hell of a time letting go of the newly-ended Cold War, which was why when they heard a KGB cell could reside in Central California, they jumped into action. Meghan's job was to find the enemy operatives and stop them from destroying the agricultural hub in and around Fresno. At first, she thought her supervisors were insane. How important was some farmland near a city no one ever heard about outside a handful of jokes in movies? Fresno's claim to fame came in being utterly unknown, unless one lived there. It wasn't until she arrived that she realized the full scope of what was at risk. Every bit of land around the city proper was farmland. The amount of produce, dairy, and meat shipped out of the county was astonishing. And there she was, completely clueless after six months undercover with spring on the way. If she didn't find answers soon, the late-spring harvests wouldn't happen. Food prices would rise and a lot of people would be forced to go without.
Meghan remembered all too well what it was like to go hungry. One of the foster homes she moved to after her remaining family refused to take her in following her father's fatal accident were obsessed with the weight of the women in the house. Every meal was measured, weighted, and cooked so blandly, she forgot what salt tasted like. Most nights, she went to bed with a growling stomach, her head swimming from hunger. After the second time she blacked out at school, the nurse reported to Child Protective Services and Meghan was moved to another home. Still, the memory haunted her. It was impossible to forget what starvation felt like.
And she quickly learned how equally awful it was to go without a shower when working out in the middle of farmland.
"Okay, I'll work on getting into one of their houses." She hoped Rich would take the bait. Of her choices, she had a chance of overpowering Rich should it come to it. Jarlan could wipe the floor with her before she ever landed a solid hit. It wasn't a matter of training; he had all the advantages, except for speed. Speed wouldn't be enough to get her out of Dodge if the man caught on to her snooping.
The waitress, with her bleached blonde bangs fanned around her forehead like she'd stuck a fork in an electric socket, dropped the bill on their table and sloshed some more coffee into their mugs to top them off. Meghan reached into the front pocket of her jeans to see if she had enough to cover her half of the bill. All she ordered was the pancakes and coffee. Janet polished off an omelet, hash browns, toast, and three cups of coffee. Of the two of them, Janet's job with the city paid far better. Meghan tried not to begrudge her friend the extra cash, but, damn, she was tired of living paycheck to paycheck with no wiggle room.
Meghan grabbed a small wad of cash, all she'd have until the weekend, and counted. A blur shot over the table. The bill disappeared.
Meghan thumped her palm on the table. "I can pay my part, Mom."
"Save it for next time."
Shaking her head, Meghan shoved the cash back in her pocket. "One more thing. See if you can get the security code for the warehouse alarm. There has to be something inside that can help."
"I'll see what I can do." Janet slid off the faux leather bench. "This better be the break we need."
Janet left her at the table and walked to the register to pay their bill. Meghan sat back against the booth and ran a hand through her shoulder-blade length hair. Ratty red strands tangled around her fingers. Gross. "A break in the case would be nice, but I'd settle for a shower. What I'm getting are marching orders to invade someone's home. Someone who could possibly snap my neck with a flick of their fingers. I love my job."
Unable to waste the food, Meghan wolfed down the last bites of her pancakes. She was still chewing when she hit the parking lot, heading for her truck. A light rain glistened in oil puddles. It was almost pretty outside. Almost. It'd take a miracle to make her beaten-up brown Silverado look pretty.
Sliding behind the wheel, Meghan sent up a silent prayer that she'd be able to con Jarlan or Rich into letting her into their house. She didn't know if God answered prayers of the sort, but she ran ridiculously low on options. The welfare of too many depended on her uncovering the true identities of the men she worked with.
* * *
You've got to be kidding me . . . .
Meghan parked her truck inside Emerald Produce's gate and gawked at the ratty tents on the other side of the fence. Jarlan and Rich stood beside the first tent. Neither looked amused with the impromptu homeless village camped outside the orange grove on the southern side of the facility. They'd had problems with people wandering through the trees, taking whatever hadn't been picked yet. This though, this was beyond ridiculous. No one in their right mind walked so far away from the city to camp out. The homeless typically clustered downtown, where it was easier to beg change off the countless city employees who walked the sidewalks every day. Out in the fields, there were only field workers who made next to nothing. Most of them weren't even legal citizens. Maybe the campers were looking for a job? She cut off the swishing windshield wipers and the light rain filled in the cleared space. How anyone could sleep in a tent in this weather baffled her. Even if it were all she owned, she'd still find somewhere drier to camp than a field in the middle of nowhere.
Sucking in a breath to brace herself against a torrential downpour of stupid, Meghan climbed down from her truck to help the men disperse their newest problem.
Three tents sat clustered together, as though the closeness would keep the rain from soaking in through the duct tape patches covering their ceilings. Two men and a boy, who couldn't have been more than sixteen, stood in front of the middle tent, facing off with Jarlan and Rich. Jarlan loomed over everyone, and the look on his face wasn't much more pleasant than Meghan's mood.
"I'm telling you one more time, pack up and leave now before I have the cops haul you in for trespassing."
The oldest man scratched under the ragged beard covering his neck. "Where do you think we'd make it in this weather?"
"Anywhere but here." Jarlan pointed to a battered bicycle with a shopping cart attached to the back like a trailer. "You have wheels. Obviously they work because you made it all the way out here with no God damn problem."
The bearded man saw Meghan approach. He grinned. "Miss, you wouldn't be opposed to us staying here until the storm passes, would you?" His companions put on their best attempt at innocent faces.
It didn't work.
"This is private property, gentlemen. You have until I reach the telephone over there" —she pointed to the guard shack on the other side of the fence— "before you need to have your tents down."
Terrified green eyes, far too big for the boy's young face, peered around bearded man's shoulder. "Let's just go, Sam."
"I'm not going anywhere, Luke."
The second man crept closer. He tugged down the knit cap covering his head, straightened his shirt, and gave her a smile filled with brown teeth. The wind blew over the guy's shoulder, bringing along soggy cigar scent. Oh yeah, he was a charmer. "Have some mercy, please. We thought we could find some jobs working the—"
"Then you need to come back at sunrise when the boss is here." Meghan kept her voice level, but all she really wanted to do was haul their tents out into the middle of the road. The rain soaked the shoulders on her coat and her hat. Water dribbled down her forehead and dripped off her eyebrow. If she got sick because some idiot thought since she was a girl that she'd pity them, she'd hunt them down later and kick their asses.
A chorus of sympathetic pleas sprung from the men. Meghan turned around, held up two fingers over her shoulder to tell them how many minutes they had, and walked toward the gate. It was harder for Rich and Jarlan to be the bad guys. If they took things into their own hands, it'd be easy for the homeless men to claim they'd been beaten instead of asked to leave. No cop in his or her right mind would believe Meghan, at her whopping five-foot-three-inches, could do any real damage. Her deceptive vulnerability was one reason she was assigned to Project CERES.
By the time Meghan made it to the corner of the guard shack, one tent was torn down and shoved unceremoniously into the shopping cart trailer, tent poles sticking out like a nearly-bald porcupine. The men and teen were halfway done with the second tent. Jarlan and Rich stood back, monitoring their every move. Meghan did the same from inside the fence, occasionally turning around to make sure the men weren't actually a distraction for someone else to sneak in and out of the warehouse without notice. The empty lot by the docks where semi-trucks pulled in for loading was clear. Not even a leaf fluttering by.
It took the men another five minutes to cram their gear back into the shopping cart, hop on their bikes, and peddle north back toward the city. Rich stood on the side of the road, watching the trio to be sure they didn't turn into one of the fields on the other side of the warehouse. Meghan used the time to jot down notes about the encounter to add to her end-of-night report.
"Morons," she said under her breath.
"That's not nice."
Jarlan's deep voice made Meghan's back tense. She didn't hear him walk to the the guard shack.
"Why not?" She turned to face him, leaning against the desk behind her in a deceptively relaxed posture.
"We would have made them leave eventually."
Meghan snorted. "I wasn't talking about you. What kind of idiot camps in the rain without cover?" The more she thought about it, the less sense it made. Damn, she wished she'd gotten a better look at the three of them.
Rich joined Jarlan at the doorway. "Desperate people aren't exactly known for thinking things through. I've heard of homeless accidentally setting themselves on fire while trying to get warm, using whatever heat source they can find. Which is usually cheap booze and a Bic."
She tried not to finish the mental image Rich painted. "You're right. It still wasn't an ideal way to start the night."
"At least they hadn't dug a shit hole yet." Jarlan nudged Rich with his shoulder. "Imagine stepping in that at three in the morning on patrol. Best to hope it froze first."
"You always look on the bright side of things." Rich shook his head.
Jarlan grinned. "It's a gift."
"How about you save it for when I'm not here? My stomach can't handle thinking about someone shitting in a hole." She wasn't nearly as amused as Rich.
Meghan grabbed her flashlight. Shouldering past the men, she made her way to the fence line to make sure the happy campers didn't cut a hole to crawl through later. The more she thought about the three they'd bounced off the property, the deeper the sinking feeling in her stomach. Nothing about the encounter made sense. Or maybe I'm being overly paranoid. Boots crunched across the asphalt, Jarlan and Rich joining her on patrol. Together, they walked the entire fence line, prodding it with their boots and flashlights to check for holes.
When they returned to the main gate, Meghan faced the guys, her chin held high. It really pissed her off that she had to ask them for help. Sure, she would have eventually found a way to shower, but by the time she did, she may have been too embarrassed by her appearance to deal. She wasn't vain, not by a long shot, but she'd learned long ago to take a smidge of pride in keeping herself together. No matter whose home she lived in, whatever ass-backward rules they forced on her in the foster homes, she was the only one in complete control of her body. She alone was responsible for staying clean and dressed—not always well-dressed, but she had clothes to keep her modest and warm. It was all that mattered. Now, though, she had to suck up her pride and admit the one thing she always took care of herself was beyond her reach. And it sucked. Worse yet, she had to use her personal discomfort and mortification in order to manipulate someone into allowing her to search their home.
You're doing this to save the livelihoods of thousands of people, Meghan reminded herself.
It didn't make things much better.
"So, which one of you wants to be my knight in shining armor?" She put on her best helpless female face.
Rich rubbed the back of his neck. "What do you need us to do?"
"The hot water heater at my complex kicked the bucket and I haven't had a shower in days." If she was going to be humiliated, she might as well exaggerate a little to push them into action. "I just need to borrow someone's bathroom for the next couple days until the apartment manager gets the new water heater installed." Please let this be worth it . . . .
The guys exchanged a look that said each prayed the other would offer up his bathroom. Neither said anything after they broke eye contact. Meghan's stomach dropped. She'd have to call Janet after they left and ask to use her shower. They'd be SOL on intelligence about these men, though, and CERES had enough setbacks already. Tears of frustration pricked her eyes. She'd never had so much trouble on a case before. Admittedly, it was only her third major mission and the first where she was the primary agent, but still, it'd been six months of nothing. How wrong was their initial intelligence? Maybe Janet was right, they were barking in the wrong forest.
The men traded uncomfortable glances. Meghan held up a hand. "Don't worry about it. I'll figure out another way."
Needing time alone, Meghan took off to the far side of the property. When she was sure they couldn't see her, she took a ragged breath and stopped trying to hold herself together. Some days it wasn't worth the pain of bottling her emotions. One crying jag, a few minutes to vent her frustrations, was all she needed to get her head back in the game.
"Clara," Rich called.
She swiped her fingers over her damp cheeks before turning and giving him a rehearsed smile. "What is it?"
Rich joined her, Jarlan trailing behind him. "I'd love to help, but I have a house guest right now."
"Maybe Nico would like to meet one of your coworkers." Jarlan wouldn't meet her eyes.
"No way, man. I haven't seen Nico in years. We have a lot to catch up on."
Meghan wanted to kick them for dragging out her humiliation. "Really, it's fine. I'll figure out something after work."
"Shit." Jarlan dug around in his jacket pocket, pulled out a small notepad and pencil. "Come use my shower before work tomorrow. Any time after sunset is good." He wrote down his address and handed her the paper.
"Won't that make you late for work?" Jarlan and Rich started their shift two hours before her.
"They can deal with it. I'll take the pay cut so long as it means I don't have to make sure I'm not standing downwind from you until your hot water is fixed."
"You're all heart, Jarlan."
Rich laughed. "If only you knew."
Meghan pocketed the paper with Jarlan's address. She planned to get up a few hours early and pull some information about the area he lived in to see if it gave her any clue about where he came from.
"Come on, Flower, let's get back to watching the grass grow."
"Flower?" Meghan arched her brows.
"You know, from Bambi. What kind of girl doesn't know Bambi?"
"Obviously Clara isn't as much of a girl as you are." Rich clapped Jarlan on the shoulder and walked off, heading to the back of the warehouse. Jarlan followed, arguing that men were allowed to watch cartoons.
Meghan shook her head. At least one of them took the bait. It wasn't the one she wanted to be trapped in enclosed spaces with, but at that point she couldn't afford to be picky. She'd have to be careful while searching his home.