Authors: Pepper O'Neal
“I guess it fell overboard. Joe said he had it out on the boat during a big storm yesterday when they were taking care of those two CIA agents Tanner told us about.”
did you say?” A gleaming shaft of hope broke through the clouds of frustration in Nick’s mind. “Joe said there was a storm there? Yesterday?”
“Yeah. So what?”
Plunking his drink down on the windowsill, Nick made four quick strides to the couch and scooped up the half-inch thick stack of paper. “These are the latest transcripts of the tap on Karl Parks’ phone. I pulled them off the telex a few minutes ago. His conversation with Tess had something about a storm yesterday.”
He scanned the pages, searching. “Yeah, here it is. This is Tess talking to Parks, asking him what he knows about a shipwreck down there. ‘We had a storm yesterday, a big one, and some strange debris washed up on the beach.’” He tossed the printouts to Tony. “Can your friend in the National Weather Service get information on Mexico?”
“Good. Give him a call and find out what places in Baja had storms last night.
strong enough to cause a shipwreck.”
Frowning, Tony scanned the pages. “Joe didn’t say anything about a shipwreck. I’m sure
It was Nick’s turn to roll his eyes, and he savored the rare feeling of superiority. “That’s not the point.” He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, his hands shaking with excitement. “If both Tess and Joe had strong storms yesterday, and other parts of Baja didn’t, then the chances are good that Tess and Joe are in the same general location.” His voice rose, the desperate pang of hope almost painful. “And since we already know where Joe is, that should narrow our search considerably.”
Eyebrows pushing toward his hairline, Tony shoved the printouts aside. “Not bad, slick.” He picked up the phone and dialed. “Nothing on the Pacific side,” he said when he’d finished the call. “But there was one on the Sea of Cortez near La Paz.”
Pulling his map from his pocket, he spread it out on the couch. Tapped his finger on it. “
Which means that Tess is right here—somewhere in this vicinity.
” He glanced up at Nick. “That was good thinking. I’m surprised I didn’t catch that myself.”
Coming from Tony, that was high praise. Nick felt a foolish grin spread across his face. “Let’s send someone down to find Joe and tell him to concentrate his search where he is,” he said then shook his head. “No, wait. I’ve got some snapshots of Tess in the closet. I’ll grab a few.”
He headed for the bedroom, calling back over his shoulder, “Call Tanner and tell him to fly to La Paz. When we find Tess, it’ll help to have an FBI agent handy just in case we have any trouble with the local cops. Better have him check with the CIA, too, and see what they know. Then call Dennis and tell him to get the plane ready. It won’t hurt for us to be there a few days early.”
Finally, something was going right. Elated, he paused in the bedroom doorway. “With any luck, we’ll get there in time for me to kill her myself.”
1:40 p.m., Baja California Sur
Tess swallowed hard. She hadn’t escaped the thugs, after all—only delayed her inevitable capture. Still, she’d be damned if she’d make it easy for them.
With her heart beating so hard she expected it to jump right out of her chest, she fled down the center aisle of the chapel, past the rows of dark wooden pews, to the polished, ornate altar. As she dove behind it, the church’s massive oak doors creaked open. The ominous sound made her wince. As did the heavy footsteps pounding on the stone floor. Then the door boomed shut. The harsh report echoed through the chapel and sent a shockwave of sheer, black fear ripping through her gut.
Vomit rose in her throat, but she swallowed it back down. Her skin grew clammy and cold. Beads of sweat trickled down her forehead, stinging her eyes. But she didn’t dare wipe them away. The slightest noise or hint of a moving shadow on the wall could reveal her hiding place. So she bit her lip and tried to blink the salt out of her eyes.
“Man, you’re crazy,” a surly voice grumbled. “There’s nobody in here.”
“Where the hell’s the padre?” asked another.
“Probably at home sleeping,” said a third. “That’s all there is to do in this hell-hole.”
“Shut up, all of you,” barked a voice Tess recognized as Joe’s. “I told you, I thought I saw a redheaded broad come in here. Well, don’t just stand there, look around. Bruce, go look outside.”
She heard the door opening again and footsteps fading as one of the men followed orders. Shoe leather slapping on stone tiles told her the other three had started to search.
Spurred on by terror, she pulled out her gun and shrank farther back into the shadows, trying to make herself invisible. How thoroughly would they hunt? Would they walk all the way up the aisle to the altar? Her heart drummed so loudly she feared it would give her away.
A few moments later she heard Bruce return from outside. “Nothin’.”
“Did you search around the whole building?” Joe asked.
“All right then, she must still be in here. I want every inch of this dump searched. Bruce, you and Josh go check around up there by the altar.”
. Tess cast around for a way out. Off to one side behind her, a short staircase led down to a small hallway and a door—a door with daylight visible through the crack at the bottom. Knowing she stood a better chance outside, she bellied over and slithered feet first down the steps.
It might’ve worked—if she’d seen the communion dish someone had left on the stairs. Her foot collided with the heavy metal plate and sent it careening to the bottom. The crash reverberated like the toll of a bell, announcing her presence to the world.
She heard the men shout and run up the aisle. Concealment now moot, she jumped to her feet, scrambled down the rest of the stairs, and tore out the door.
Gunfire erupted behind her, shattering the afternoon quiet. Bullets whizzed by, plowing into the ground around her as she vaulted over a fence. Expecting to feel the slugs slam into her back at any second, she fled to the cover of the houses on an adjoining street and ducked in between two buildings.
She stopped to catch her breath, glancing behind her. No one there. But she didn’t believe for a minute they weren’t coming. They just hadn’t followed on foot. Not surprising, considering the men Nick usually hired. She hadn’t met any of these four before, but they reminded her of the employees she had met—all street-smart, city dwellers. The simple dirt streets, sidewalks, and backyards of this little desert village must’ve intimidated them all to hell. Since Nick wasn’t here to complain, they would probably search for her by driving around. At least that’s what she hoped.
While her mind scrambled to form an escape plan, she wove her way through the village, creeping from house to house, taking cover at the first sound of a vehicle. Three ancient pickup trucks and one Volkswagen bus later, she was crouched behind a wilting bougainvillea next to a clothesline in someone’s backyard, when she spotted the Jeep.
Windows down, the men drove past at a crawl, their hard eyes scanning four different directions. Cursing her wretched luck, Tess drew farther back into the shadows of the shrubbery. But she couldn’t stay there. The neighbors might see her and start asking questions. She needed some camouflage or—a costume, she thought, glancing at the laundry hanging on the clothesline above her.
Rising, she inspected the clothes: children’s and still wet. She sank back down to a crouch and moved on. From the clothesline next door, she secured a tattered dress. She felt like slime for stealing from people who had so little, so she left a handful of Mexican coins piled on the back doorstep, hoping it’d be enough to cover the theft.
She slipped the dress on over her jeans. It was still slightly damp and four sizes too big. Several inches bunched around her feet. Pulling a pocketknife from her backpack, she cut a piece of excess rope from the end of the clothesline and used it as a belt, cinching the skirt up around her waist so she could walk without tripping.
As she worked, the mouthwatering aroma of enchiladas drifted to her, reminding her she hadn’t eaten all day. She could hear a woman’s voice, floating through an open window, and music playing on a radio. A child cried. Someone murmured soothing words—tiny glimpses of life being lived as it was supposed to be, far from the edge of constant fear.
Tears pricked Tess’s eyes, but she fought them back and pressed on.
At another house, she found a large tablecloth. Though faded and frayed, the heavy material was sturdy. Leaving more coins, she pulled it from the clothesline. She folded it in a triangle and draped it around her head and shoulders like a shawl, shadowing her face, hiding her hair and pale skin. The clothes made her feel hot and bedraggled, but she figured she could pass as a native. At least from a distance.
A group of young people came down the street, talking and laughing.
. When they passed, she slipped from the shadows and fell in behind them. Knowing the biggest part of wearing a costume effectively was body language, she slumped her shoulders and bowed her head, trying to look like a worn-out mother of ten—the way Pablo’s mother looked.
Tess followed the teens across the street and through the square. When they reached the other side of the plaza, she slipped off down a side street and worked her way through the rest of the village, one house at a time.
At the outskirts of town, she hid behind the tortilla shop and waited, the scent of the hot, fresh tortillas making her sick with hunger. When the little store closed its doors for siesta—and there had been no sign of Nick’s men for over an hour—she moved on.
She was worried about Max. Her trip to the market had taken much longer than she’d planned, and she could only hope he’d stay asleep until she got home. But at least she wasn’t leading any assassins back to him. She hoped.
She detoured past the local poultry farm, catching the elderly farmer at slaughtering time. As she approached, he tossed a headless bird to the ground where it jerked and wiggled, spewing
and feathers. The old man ignored the chicken’s bizarre dance and set his hatchet down on a blood-soaked block of wood. Wiping his hands on a bloody rag, he greeted her with a warm smile. If he noticed her strange attire, he didn’t comment. She tore her gaze away from the dead chicken and asked the farmer about getting a ride to La Paz later on that afternoon.
No problem. Asking only for a few pesos in gas money, he promised to take her whenever she needed. Today, tomorrow, next week, it didn’t matter. He’d be around.
His simple kindness touched her. The people in the village had been good to her and had asked very little in return. Grateful, she kissed his cheek and watched a sheepish grin spread across his face.
Heartbroken at the thought of moving on again, she headed down the road toward home, throwing frequent glances over her shoulder to make sure she wasn’t being followed.
At the last bend before the cottage, she abandoned the road and headed across the desert, working her way over the rough terrain to the palm trees that bordered the cove. Careful not to make a sound, she crept through the vegetation to a spot where she could see her house.
She crouched behind a large prickly pear cactus and watched her front door for several minutes. No one came out, and she heard no voices.
Deciding she had no unwelcome visitors, she ran to the back door, slipped inside, and listened. Nothing. She dropped her backpack on the kitchen table, pulled off her costume, and went to check on Max. He was still sleeping. Relieved, she hurried outside to retrieve his pants and shirt from the line.
With his clothes over her arm, she tipped-toed back into the bedroom, folded the garments, and piled them on the end of the bed on top of his shoes and life vest.
Griffin opened his eyes and blinked at her. He got up, stretched, yawned, and sniffed the clothes. He must have decided the pile would be more comfortable because he crawled on top and went back to his nap.
Tess stroked the cat and watched the man sleep, struggling against the urge to run her fingers through the soft hairs on his chest.
God, she missed being held. Not sex so much as affection—to have someone
there for her, to give her companionship and comfort. Things she hadn’t experienced in far too long.
That’s no reason to take it out on him
Poor man’s injured
He doesn’t need me pawing at him
. Disgusted with herself, she started to leave the room.
Max gave a soft gasp. She stopped and walked back to the bed. Thinking she should wake him and tell him she was leaving within the hour, she put her hand on his arm.
God, he’s awfully warm
“Max? Max, wake up.”
She shook his shoulder. He gasped again, took one long, shuddering breath, and stopped breathing altogether.
“Max?” Tess shook him again. Hard. “Come on now, breathe.”
“Damn it, Max, don’t do this to me.”
She put her fingers against his neck. His pulse was weak. And fading.
“This can’t be happening! You were okay just a minute ago.” Panicked, she yanked the sheet down to his waist and slugged his chest. “Breathe, goddamn you!”
She couldn’t call 9-1-1, even if she’d had a phone. Emergency services didn’t exist out here. If she wanted Max resuscitated, she’d have to do it herself. But she only had a limited knowledge of CPR—just what she’d seen in movies or read about in novels.
And he still had a faint pulse. Should she even do CPR?
Probably not if his heart’s still beating
. She could break his ribs or something, couldn’t she? “Shit.”
Damn it, I have to do something
. Artificial respiration? Yeah, that might work. Even though she wasn’t quite sure how it was done, she jumped on the bed and straddled him. She pinched his nose closed, took a big breath, and blew it into his mouth. Repeated the breath and blew it into him again. Next, she pressed gently on his chest to make him exhale. Then she started the process all over again.
She kept at it, though sweat rolled down her back and fear for Max gnawed at her insides. “Come back.
This shouldn’t have happened. His injury didn’t look
serious. Her tears dropped onto his chest as she fought to revive him. He was too young to die, damn it, and if he did, it’d be her fault. She should’ve taken him straight to the doctor in El Nopal.
Suddenly, he jerked and drew in a small, ragged breath on his own. Then another. Breaking into sobs of relief, Tess collapsed on top of him.
The heat radiating from his skin made her back away. He shouldn’t have a fever. He didn’t appear to have any infection. But then, the day
been very warm, and the cottage was stifling.
Well, whatever the reason, he’s burning up
I have to cool him off
. She rolled off him and went to the kitchen for ice, rags, and a pan of cold water. Taking them back to the bedroom, she wrapped part of the ice in two rags, and stuffed the bundles in his armpits. The remaining ice she dumped in the water. Then, soaking a cloth, she bathed his skin.
Dark fingers of doubt picked at her mind. How much trouble was Max in? Who was after him? And would they show up here before she could wake him and explain things? If the men after him were anything like Nick, they’d kill her right along with Max.
Still, regardless of the consequences, she couldn’t leave today as she’d planned. He might stop breathing again. She’d made the decision not to take him to the doctor, and she couldn’t risk going back to the village now. Though she wanted to deny it, she was responsible for him. She had to stay and make sure he lived through the night.
Sitting beside him on the bed, she cringed as the survival instincts she’d developed in the last nine months screamed,
. All around her. So thick in the air, she breathed it in. Only this time, she couldn’t run.
6:14 p.m., Hotel La Siesta, La Paz, Baja California Sur
“I still don’t see why we have to stay in a dumpy little motel in some stupid little village when
is at the marina right here in La Paz.” Tired, cranky, and dissatisfied with life, Nick bitched non-stop as Tony parked their rental car outside the elegant hotel where Special Agent Tanner was staying. He knew he was acting like a spoiled child, but he didn’t care.
Certain that a village motel couldn’t provide much in the way of comfort or amenities, he added, “Or if not on the boat, why not in a nice hotel like this?”
Tony sighed in that way he had. “There aren’t any nice hotels in El Nopal. And if you don’t want Tess to slip away again, we’ll need to be in the village to supervise the search for her.”
Outgunned by logic, Nick switched subjects as he followed Tony through the hotel’s double glass doors and across the lobby. “I hope Tanner has some information for us on what the CIA’s doing about her. I don’t want them to get to her first.”
“So you’ve said. Frequently.” Tony stepped into the elevator and pushed the button for the fourth floor. “Stop whining. I’ve told you, Tanner can handle the CIA.”
The minute Tanner opened the door to room 416, Nick asked, “Any news?”
Tony rolled his eyes. “He’s worried the CIA will find the bitch first. Were you able to find out anything?”
“I talked to my source at their headquarters in Langley before I left Salt Lake. Found out that they have three field officers down here right now trying to locate Horton.”
?” Nick demanded, throwing himself into a chair by the window. “Didn’t we just eliminate two of those bastards?”
Tony sighed again. “Relax, slick. They haven’t found her yet.”
Tanner flicked a glance at Nick. “No, not so far. But they will. Now, don’t panic,” he warned, waving a hand. Opening the tiny refrigerator, he pulled out a couple of beers and handed them to Nick and Tony. “Jim Bradshaw, one of the three CIA guys, is staying at this hotel,” he continued, taking a beer for himself. “Room 312. I contacted him when I got in and found out that if the other two officers locate Horton, they’ll bring her here to the hotel so Bradshaw can question her.”
A tight, smug smile curved his lips. “He’s agreed to let me in on the interrogation. If she talks about anything that incriminates you, I’ll convince them she’s full of shit. After all, she’s got no proof. And I’ve persuaded Bradshaw to turn her over to me for protection after they’ve talked with her.” Waving his beer, he toasted Nick. “So she can be disposed of whenever you like.”
“What about the CIA guys?”
At Nick’s question, Tanner seemed to draw inward. He drained his beer, his Adam’s apple bouncing as he gulped. And gulped again. “If it were up to me, I’d leave them alone so they could go back and report that she doesn’t know anything.” Looking back and forth between both men, his gaze settled on Tony. “Don’t you agree?”
“Yes. There’s nothing to be gained by killing those guys. Joe said they killed the two you warned us
. Three more disappearing down here will bring too much heat.” Tony slanted Tanner a questioning glance. “You’re sure we’re talking about three
agents and not the same ones that came down here to find Almasi?”
“As far as I know these are different men,” Tanner confirmed. “Bradshaw said nothing about the terrorists, so I assumed
and the two other officers came here just to find Horton. Although I didn’t press for details,” he added with a jerk of his shoulder as he set down his empty beer bottle. “I have to be careful what questions I ask. But if his two officers are the ones your guys killed, Bradshaw certainly doesn’t know they’re dead. He’s expecting them to bring the woman in within twenty-four hours.”
“Okay, good. Then when he gives her to you, you give her to us and tell your superiors she was killed trying to escape.”
“What if she doesn’t know anything, do you want me to just let her go?”
“No!” Nick jumped to his feet. “She didn’t follow the teachings of the Church and I want her taken out.”
? What has religion got to do with—no, never mind. I probably don’t want to know.”
Tony chuckled. “He’s still pissed because the bitch didn’t keep her mouth shut like he told her. A woman’s supposed to obey her man, but she not only talked, she sang to your pals in the FBI.” Finished with his beer, he set the bottle on the nightstand, got to his feet, and moved toward the door. “Come on, slick, let’s get back to the
and get some sleep.”
Nick followed him out still grumbling about the accommodations in the village.
6:18 p.m., the cottage near El Nopal, Baja California Sur
You shouldn’t be wasting time on this
. Tess ignored her inner voice and remained hunched over her kitchen table. Battling an emotional cocktail of guilt, urgency, and terror, she gritted her teeth and continued gluing chicken feathers onto mosquito netting, creating a miniature replica of an Aztec chieftain’s ceremonial cloak.
You need to be gone from here
You should’ve left hours ago
. She shook her head, trying to dislodge the nagging sense of dread.
Too late to worry about what she should have done. She’d done what was right and stayed to help Max. At least she hoped it was right. A frisson of fear slithered up her spine. What if Nick had sent him after her? Most of the afternoon she’d spent bathing him with cold water, trying to keep him cool, praying he wouldn’t stop breathing again. But if he was Nick’s guy—
She slammed her mind shut on the thought. She was staying. And since she was, she’d finish Pablo’s costume. She’d
the boy, damn it, and she couldn’t live with herself if she let him down. When you gave your word to a child, you shouldn’t break it. God knew, her own childhood had been nothing
broken promises, and she refused to do the same thing herself.
Just a few more inches to go, and the cape would be done. She’d finished the paper-mache headdress last week and stashed it on top of the refrigerator, out of reach of Griffin’s mischievous claws.
The terror of her near capture in the village was still fresh in her mind, and every sound made her tremble in fear. She shot frequent glances through the windows as the last rays of the sun dissolved into the purple glow of twilight. The revolver lay on the table beside her, close at hand.
If Nick’s men conducted a
search and stopped at every house on the way to hers, it would take them some time. With all the dirt roads in the area—unmarked and easy to miss in the dark—it was even possible they’d wait until morning to check the cottages near the beach.
But what if they come tonight
? If they did, they did. She’d have to find a way to deal with them. Max was her responsibility. She couldn’t abandon him, or she’d be no better than the
in her past who’d done the same to her.
The cape finished at last, Tess draped it over a chair and wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of one hand. Then, stretching her neck from side to side, she picked up the revolver—just in case—and went to check on Max.
His breathing was deep and regular. She put her hand on his forehead. Much cooler. Maybe he’d dodged the bullet. One of them, anyway.
Her stomach complained it was way past dinnertime, so she went back to the kitchen. As she pulled the new jar of peanut butter out of her backpack, the hated coins rattled and clinked, echoing in the quiet little house.
She really needed to do something with those damn things. On impulse she turned her pack upside down and dumped the contents on the kitchen table. Even with the coins she’d left to cover her thefts, a fair-sized mountain remained.
If I took them all to the bank and exchanged them for paper money, they might actually be worth something
Grabbing a sock from the bedroom, she piled the coins into it, filling it almost half way up, then tied a knot to keep them in place. She held it up by the tail. Heavy and cumbersome, it looked like an immense guppy. But it would work to get the coins to the bank in La Paz. Problem solved, she shoveled everything back into her pack and turned her attention to dinner.
Too hot and tired
to even think
about cooking, she spread peanut butter on a flour tortilla and cut a slab of watermelon. Hardly gourmet cuisine, but it satisfied her hunger, it was easy, and it didn’t dirty many dishes.
Griffin must’ve smelled the peanut butter because he came running. Rubbing up against her ankles, he purred and meowed.
“No,” she said firmly. “You had yours this morning.” But Griffin kept begging until she gave in. “Oh, all right.” Scooping out a glob, she dropped it into his food dish. “Try not to get it all over you this time.”
She bent down, stroked him, and kissed his head. “I’m really gonna miss you, brat. Every time I eat peanut butter, I’ll think of you.”
Sighing, she rose and looked around the kitchen. This would be her last night in the cottage. In the morning, she’d wake Max and explain that she was taking off and he’d be on his own. Pablo’s family would look after him if he was too weak to leave for a few days. She’d give him some money for food and let him stay in the cottage for a couple of weeks until the rent ran out—
they survived the night, of course.
With that in mind, she closed and locked her windows and doors. Locks wouldn’t stop a determined assassin, but they might keep one from just walking in to find out who lived there. At any rate, locking up made her feel safer, and right now, she’d take what she could get. She also drew all the curtains since it was too dark for her to see out any longer.