First chapter of Duplicity (A Girl Undercover Novel)

My mind was still filled with images of that incredibly hot guy when I searched for a table in the health club cafeteria. Tall and well-built, he’d looked deep into my eyes while holding the door for me, turning me into a shivering mess. As if that intense gaze hadn’t been enough, the sexy little smile that followed in response to my stuttering “thank you” completely destroyed me. It was only with the utmost willpower that I’d managed to walk into the building that housed the health club.

I forced him out of my head, annoyed with myself for acting like I was still in high school. I was a cop undercover, well on her way to becoming an LAPD detective, for Christ’s sake! I laughed and shook my head. It was friggin’ embarrassing!

I spotted an empty table located at the edge of the cafeteria that gave me a great view of the two health club elevators. Perfect. I plopped down on one of the surrounding chairs and pulled out the book about how to get a flat stomach from my tote bag. Placing it on the table, I pretended to read. All I had to do now was wait for Felipe Cardoza to arrive. If he stuck to his usual schedule, he should appear in the next fifteen minutes or so.

It took almost half an hour before Cardoza emerged from one of the elevators, wearing dark slacks and a dress shirt. As always, he walked like a drunken cowboy, swaying sideways with each bowlegged step.

Okay, be prepared, Gabi. This time you will get the bastard to train with you. I didn’t feel good about stealing clients from my coworkers, but it was a necessary evil. Besides, if Vera, his current trainer, knew that this particular client was really a covert drug lord known for his barbarian treatment of any person rubbing him the wrong way, she’d surely forgive me.

My heart pounding with excitment, I closed the big book and smoothed out imaginary wrinkles on my stretchy trainer’s top. Cardoza checked in at the front desk and headed toward the locker rooms; within a few seconds, he would pass my table. I took a deep breath, pretending like I was busy grabbing my bag. Right as Cardoza was about to walk by, I picked up the book and acted as if it slipped out of my hand. It landed on the floor with a loud smack, a couple of feet in front of him.

A smile threatened to betray my satisfaction. The book’s front cover was positioned at an angle that allowed Cardoza a perfect view of it. He did a subtle dance to avoid tripping over the heavy tome before coming to a complete halt.

I flew to my feet, my hand partly covering my mouth. “Oh, my God, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to do that,” I said in my fake Swedish accent. I bent to retrieve the book, but Cardoza beat me to it, just as I had hoped. Instead of handing it back to me, he stared at the front cover that said:

HOW TO GET A SIX PACK FAST—GET RIPPED ABS WITHOUT DIETING.

Beneath those words was a picture of a man with washboard abs, just the kind I’d overheard Cardoza telling Vera he wanted several times while they worked out.

He looked at me. “Is this a good book?” His raspy voice was heavily tinged with a Spanish accent.

I grinned at him, my adrenaline running high. “Yes. It’s part of a course on abdominals that I’m taking.”

“You take a course on stomach?”

“Yes, as you know I’m one of the trainers at the club. A lot of people want great abs.”

He nodded morosely. “Yes, I do too. You good with abs?”

I did my best to look modest. “If I may say so myself, yes, I am. I’m the only one taking this abs certification out of all the trainers here.” Which was true because this certification only existed in my mind. But Cardoza would never know that. “I only have a couple more days of studying to do and then I’ll be Nikkei’s master of abs. Well, mistress of abs, I suppose… ”

I kept smiling at the man, hoping I didn’t come across as desperate as I felt.

“Really?” he said, looking hopeful. He patted his big stomach that hung like dough rising over his pants, completely hiding whatever belt he might be wearing. “You could get rid of this?”

“Of course. As long as you work with me and do whatever I tell you to do, it’ll be gone in a month. And in another month, you’ll look like the guy here.” I pointed at the ripped-abs guy on the cover. “But you already have a trainer, don’t you? I think I’ve seen you on the floor with Vera.”

“Yes, Vera is my trainer. But maybe I need one more like you. An expert in six pack.”

I made my voice innocent. “How long have you guys trained together?” I was well aware that they’d been training since I got hired at Nikkei Sports Club four months ago.

“Long time,” he replied. “She is very good, but maybe it’s time for a change.” He pursed his lips and nodded to himself. “Yes, maybe it’s time for a change… ”

“Felipe!” A man’s deep voice cut through the din of the cafeteria. Both Cardoza and I turned to see who it was. A tall, broad-shouldered man in a charcoal suit over a crisp, white shirt strode toward us. His tan face was tight as he fixed Cardoza with his gaze.

I gasped inwardly. It was the hot guy with the power to turn me into quivering jelly.

He stopped in front of Cardoza and raked a big hand through his cropped, brown hair, messing it up a little. Up close, I saw just how good-looking he was with his high cheekbones, strong jaw and even features. He had bluish-green eyes with lots of golden flecks thrown in. I couldn’t stop looking at him. Cardoza couldn’t either, but hardly for the same reason as me.

“What’s goin’ on?” Cardoza asked in an undertone, instantly stiff.

“I just found out. They can’t make tomorrow after all.” Unlike Cardoza, the stranger spoke with an American accent. “We need to head over there.”

Cardoza stared at him, his moon-shaped face immobile except for his flaring nostrils. “No me digas… ”

“Unfortunately, that’s what’s going on,” the brown-haired man said. While Cardoza seemed deep in thought, he turned in my direction. I jolted inwardly as his mesmerizing eyes met mine, and my legs threatened to give out yet again. He raised his slightly cleft chin and looked at me as though trying to see into my mind. And this time around there weren’t even the beginnings of a smile on those gorgeous lips, like there had been when I’d first run in to him.

Is he on to me? I wondered, feeling how the hair at the back of my neck stiffened. No, of course he wasn’t. He didn’t even know me. It was just my nerves screwing with me again.

“Okay, let’s go,” Cardoza said and handed me back my book. “Your book.”

With that, both he and his friend were on their way out of the club.

I remained in place, looking after them as they disappeared into one of the elevators that would take them to the club’s lobby. Only when my smartphone announced that I had a new text did I awake from my daze. Goddammit. And I was so close… If only that guy—whoever the hell he was—hadn’t appeared I’d have had Cardoza right where I wanted him. Now, based on my luck so far, he’d completely forget about our conversation and I’d have to come up with another, non-obvious way to approach him. I was seriously running out of ideas.

I was so frustrated I wanted to stomp my foot like an upset five-year-old, but that would be a boneheaded move considering all the people around me. I took a few deep breaths to calm myself instead and checked my phone to see who’d texted me. It was my next client, Barney, a thirty-nine-year-old economist and the most eccentric person I’d ever met.

Body not cooperating. Will be late, the text said.

What else was new?

I tried to think of what else I could do to get Cardoza in my clutches only to conclude that I’d better do it later, when I was more relaxed. Who was that hot guy anyway? One of Cardoza’s soldiers? It sure seemed like it. I wondered if he was a member at the health club or just a guest. He was probably a member that I had somehow managed to miss, I decided, despite the fact that he was so strikingly handsome. To find out, all I needed to do was ask the front desk people about him. If I did it now, they should remember him. I hurried over to them.

“Hey, Frasier,” I said to the wavy-haired, slender guy in the well-pressed shirt and pants. He had just finished checking in a member.

As cheerful as always, he turned to me and called me by the name I was using for this undercover operation. “Hi, Annika. What can I do for you?”

I leaned toward him and whispered, “Can you check a member for me? A guy who just came and left. I need his name. I think he wants a trainer.”

“Sure thing.” He opened the page on his computer that featured photos of recently checked-in members. Frasier was the best, always cooperative and discreet, never asking any unnecessary questions. Making sure I had a good view of the screen, he scrolled through all the photos. “Anyone look like him?” he asked.

“There, stop!” I said a little too loudly. I threw a glance over my shoulder to check if anyone paid attention to what we were doing. We were in the clear.

“That guy?” Frasier asked and pointed to the stranger’s face.

“Yes. What’s his name?”

“Paul Medina. I remember him. He signed up two days ago.” Frasier looked at me, bright-faced. “You need his number?”

“No, no, I just wanted to know if he was a member and now I know. Thanks a lot, Frasier. Gotta run.” I flashed him a smile and took off. As soon as I was out of sight, the smile on my lips faded away. I walked into the elevator that would take me to the giant health club’s sixth floor where I could call Mulligan, my handler at the NYPD, without being overheard and report what had just happened. He might know who Paul Medina was.

I strode out onto the empty sundeck and sat down on one of the lounge chairs. Then I found my smartphone in my purse and speed-dialed Mulligan. He picked up on the second ring.

“Longoria,” he said by way of greeting. “What’s cookin’?”

“I was so close to getting Cardoza to train with me, but right as I was about to seal the deal, this dude comes up and interrupts us about something that didn’t work out. ‘They can’t make tomorrow after all’ were his exact words and Cardoza definitely didn’t like that. They had to go somewhere to take care of it. So they left.”

“Really? Does this man seem like he works with Cardoza?”

“Yes. His name’s Paul Medina. You heard of him?”

“Yeah, I’ve heard of him. He’s just one of Cardoza’s soldiers. One of his main guys. He a member of the club?”

“Yes.”

“I see.” There was a moment of silence. “Gabi.”

Uh-oh. This was not good. I’d come to learn that whenever Mulligan used my first name, some serious shit was going on. “Yeah?” I replied.

“Nicholson has given you two more weeks. If you haven’t become Cardoza’s trainer by then, they’ll take you off the case.”

“What?” I could hardly believe what I was hearing. How was I going to become Cardoza’s trainer in two weeks? I couldn’t just go up to him and tell him we had to train together. Things like that took time. I had to be very subtle in my approach. The last thing I wanted to do was raise any suspicions in his mind, or I might end up like the last undercover person who’d tried to nail him—cooked to death while stuffed in a 55-gallon drum filled with gasoline. Needless to say, it was something I wanted to avoid. I couldn’t just assume that Cardoza would forget our interaction today, which was why I needed to wait and see if he approached me to train. Who knew how long that might take? Given that it had taken me almost two months before I could get him to even speak to me, it was bound to take longer than two weeks.

“I’m sorry, Longoria,” Mulligan said. “I know how much this case means to you, but my hands are tied. To tell you the truth, he wanted to send you home right away, but Brady and I convinced him to give you the extra time.”

“Okay. I understand. Thanks for sticking up for me.”

Soon after that we disconnected.

Leaning back against the lounge chair, I placed the phone on my belly and closed my eyes. So Nicholson might get his way after all then, I thought. The FBI deputy director had been against letting a rookie cop like me with so little street experience take such a dangerous, not to mention difficult undercover job. But Captain Brady at my station back in Los Angeles—who happened to be Mulligan’s cousin—had vouched for me, saying I had what it takes to succeed at this case. Out of the six female cops that had been considered across the country, I’d been selected. The fact that I had a background as a fitness trainer had clinched the deal.

I sighed heavily. If I didn’t nail Cardoza, I could not only say goodbye to being promoted to detective any time soon, but failing the assignment would make my captain look really bad. He’d gone out on a limb for me to get this extraordinary gig and didn’t deserve to suffer because I’d proven to be incompetent after all. What was even worse, the elusive drug lord would continue to destroy the lives of thousands of people, directly or indirectly, through his massive coke dealings. He had to be stopped once and for all.

I could only pray that Felipe would for once remember our conversation and approach me in the next few days.

To read more of Duplicity, click here.