Hi there, everybody! Welcome to Serial Saturday where I’m posting excerpts of my serial novella, Bad Spirits each week. If you missed Part I, it’s here. Part II is here and Part III is here. So sit back, grab a drink and enjoy!
The hood over my head disoriented me and I stumbled, but my captors held me steady. Unable to do anything except try to stay on my feet, I didn’t have time to think about what was happening. The group moved me through the hacienda with a silent swiftness that left me wondering why Salazar would want to keep my execution quiet.
We stopped, and someone threaded a strap of some sort underneath my arms and cinched it tight across my chest. Someone else stood behind me and wrapped their arms around my waist in an iron grip. We frog marched a short distance, then they lifted me off my feet and pulled me backward over what must have been the second floor railing. The falling sensation hit me hard, but a zipping sound told me we were connected to something that would break our landing.
We reached the ground, and the strap around my chest loosened. Other sets of feet hit the gravel in addition to the one who had a hold of my arm. We’d gone maybe ten steps when the first pop of gunfire echoed through the compound.
“Mierda,” my captor muttered under his breath, and dragged me forward. Someone returned fire and then a full gunfight erupted behind us, automatic weapons fire splitting the night. I ran, stumbling, trusting the man beside me to guide us to safety.
Safety? The idea confused me, but I couldn’t sort it out. I could only run.
We veered to the left and I heard a car door open. He shoved me inside. I slid to the floor and attempted to climb onto the seat.
“Stay down,” he said, in thickly accented English.
I ducked my head and pulled the hood off, gulping in air. I lay on the back floor of a large, idling SUV. The gunman that shoved me into the vehicle walked toward the front of the pickup. I peered over the seat back. He stopped and leaned across the hood, aiming his gun at a large gardening shed. Three dark figures rounded the corner, running straight toward us. It must have been his buddies, because he didn’t shoot. One of the figures stopped alongside the building and waited while the other two made it to the truck and climbed inside.
An unmasked man raced around the corner, but then checked and fell back behind the structure. The figure alongside the building melted into the shadows around the back. Two gunshots followed. The masked gunman reappeared and resumed his position next to the garden shed.
The man standing at the front of the truck sprinted back, got in next to me, and slammed the door closed. The SUV spit gravel as it rocketed forward. When he realized I’d taken the hood off, he grabbed it and yanked it over my head. At the same time he pushed me back down behind the seat.
“Keep the hood on and stay down.”
We skidded to a stop next to the shed. The back door opened and closed, and a pair of legs shoved me to the middle. Then we started moving again. The sporadic gunfire faded in the distance. It wouldn’t be long before Salazar’s men followed.
“Milo?” one of them asked.
“Dead,” came the reply. No one spoke after that.
We sped through the night. I fought to keep my legs from cramping and shifted in the small space.
After a while, the man to my left nudged my shoulder. “You can get up now, but keep the hood on.” I crawled onto the seat and stretched my legs, careful not to disturb either gunman.
Who were these men? Did they rescue me only to kill me? They weren’t Salazar’s thugs, obviously, or I’d be dead by now. Would they hold me for ransom? I doubted Salazar would pay to get me back. He’d probably tell them to go ahead and kill me–the only bright spot being that they might not know that.
The SUV rounded a curve and the road became rugged. We seemed to hit every pothole in existence. One of the men in the front seat lit a cigarette. The rancid smoke seeped under the hood, and I had to swallow to keep from choking.
Sometime later, we jolted to a stop. The guy to my left got out and pulled me from the truck. I tensed, uncertain if they meant to kill me here. My heart pounded in my chest. I took a deep breath, hoping to relax. It didn’t work so well with the hood.
“Take it off.”
Someone yanked the hood off my head and the sweet, fresh night air filled my lungs. The others had taken off their masks and stood next to the truck. I’d counted correctly–there were four of them. Five, if I included the unlucky Milo back at the hacienda. I didn’t recognize any of them.
“Who are you? What do you want?” I asked.
One of the men stepped forward, a glint of metal flashed in the headlights.
A knife. Not a pretty way to die.
He lifted my hands and sliced through the ties that bound my wrists.
“We will wait, now,” he replied.
The rest of the men leaned against the SUV, talking in low voices. I rubbed my wrists where the ties had dug into them. We were parked somewhere out in the middle of the Sonoran desert, the stars the only light visible for miles. A lonely yip of a coyote echoed in the distance.
The men broke off their conversation and everyone turned to watch as a pair of headlights danced along the dirt road toward the group. I didn’t know if I should be relieved or afraid. Was it Salazar’s men, or the person they were waiting for?
The four of them reached for their weapons, and one motioned for me to get into the back of the SUV and duck down.
“Uh, guys, can a girl get a gun around here? I mean, if it’s someone you don’t want to see, I know how to shoot. I’d be able to help.” I’d also feel a hell of a lot better with a gun in my hand. At least I’d have a fighting chance.
One of them started for the back of the SUV, apparently to retrieve a gun.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said a big guy with a goatee. The one heading toward the truck looked at me and shrugged. At least now I knew there were more weapons. I gave the big guy a dark look and climbed into the SUV.
The headlights drew closer and the tension rose in the group. All four of them stood on alert, weapons raised, using the truck for cover. Careful not to draw attention to myself, I glanced over the back of the seat to the cargo area to see if I could get a look at what they had for extra fire power. It was too dark to be sure, but I thought I saw the shadowy shapes of several large automatics.
A dark-colored four-wheel drive pickup pulled alongside the SUV and stopped. The gunmen lowered their weapons, and I let out a breath. The driver opened the door and got out. I didn’t know him. He stood half a head taller than the rest of the men there, although dressed in similar clothing. He walked toward me as the passenger door opened and the other occupant exited the truck.
So he’d been the one behind this midnight invasion. I’d wondered how they’d broken through Salazar’s security without raising the alarm until the end. Now I knew.
The taller man’s lips pressed together in a grim line. He shook his head.
“You did this for her?” He frowned as he looked me over.
Confused, I looked from him to Eduardo as he approached. “Did what?”
The taller man turned to Eduardo. “She damn well better be worth it, Ed. There ain’t no going back, amigo.”
Eduardo nodded, his expression unreadable.
“They were going to kill her, whether she gave them what they wanted or not. She lived with Salazar for over three years. She knows him.” He looked at me and said, “She’ll cooperate.”
“Well?” The taller man crossed his arms and cocked his head to one side.
“Uh, Eduardo, can I have a word, please?” I didn’t like this guy, whoever he was. I grabbed Eduardo’s arm and pulled him out of earshot.
“What the hell am I supposed to tell him? And who the hell is he, anyway? How do I know I can trust him?”
“He’s DEA. And these men,” Eduardo indicated the others standing nearby, “work for a special arm of Mexican drug enforcement.”
“And you’re involved, how?”
“I give them information on Salazar’s operation. I knew when Frank brought you back that I would have to do something or they would kill you, like the others, so I told them you had important information.”
“But if you go back now, they’ll kill you.” The look on Eduardo’s face confirmed my suspicions. “You’re not, are you?”
Eduardo shook his head. “No, they will kill me, if only for letting you escape again. I made a deal with Chance–” He glanced back at the DEA guy. “–to place me in the US federal witness security program, in exchange for my help.” He shrugged. “I will just have to go sooner than I expected.”
“I’m in enough trouble as it is. If I give them information and Salazar finds out, it’s going to get a lot worse–you know how far he’ll go to find me.”
“Talk to Chance. Maybe he’ll make a deal with you, too.”
Great choice. Make a deal with the DEA, and go into hiding for the rest of my life, never contacting my family or friends again. Or, don’t make a deal and look over my shoulder for the rest of my life, wondering when Salazar, or worse, Anaya, would find me. I had no doubt that one of them would.
It didn’t take long to make a decision.
“You put your life on the line for me, Eduardo. For that I am grateful. I will give them whatever information I have, as long as they promise protection for us both.”
Eduardo smiled, relief evident on his face. He wrapped his arm around me as we walked back to the group.
Chance leaned against the SUV, talking with one of the government guys. He looked up as I approached.
“I’ll tell you everything I know, on one condition. You have to guarantee that you’ll put me in the witness protection program in the states, the same as Eduardo.”
“I can arrange it, if what you tell me has any value.”
“Fine. Where do I start?”
The interview with Chance took over three hours. He was thorough with his questioning, prying out bits of information I’d forgotten and didn’t think were worth remembering. He was particularly interested in John Sterling’s role in Salazar’s organization. When I got to the part about my first escape, I conveniently left out stealing Anaya’s drug money. It would be nice to think that the men who now surrounded me had altruistic tendencies, but Sterling had been DEA. Money did strange things to people.
The safe house sat nestled in a tidy neighborhood in an innocent-looking town near the Sea of Cortez. The sea-salt air and briny humidity reminded me of happier times. Chance had determined it would be best if I remained in Mexico for now, and he’d assured me I’d be as safe there as anywhere. I assumed it was because once I was stateside there’d be more of a temptation for me to walk away. It wouldn’t matter where they hid me–if Salazar or his people got wind of my location, they’d stop at nothing to kill me.
I found it ironic and not a little annoying that I was so close to my original destination, yet now unable to go through with my plan to obtain a forged passport and leave the country under an assumed name. The only thing stopping me, other than the armed guards, was the belief that sending Salazar to prison would give me a slight reprieve from the fear that now ruled my life.
Monotonous days fluctuated between sleeping, reading, watching Mexican soap operas, and jumping at every sound. I was allowed an hour or so of outdoor recreation each day, and even that was monitored closely. The back yard had a high cement wall and for all intents and purposes I felt like a prisoner, not an asset. Meals consisted of tortillas and beans, with alternating chicken, pork and beef. I craved vegetables. Definitely a first for me.
The day Chance visited, I’d just beaten three of the guards at poker. I was feeling flush what with all the toothpicks I’d won.
We walked to the far end of the enclosed backyard and sat in a couple of lawn chairs in the shade of a large palm tree. The intensity of the midday heat created a death-like stillness. Even the cockroaches decided to take a siesta.
“So when do I get to leave?”
“An arrest warrant has been issued with an extradition order. All we have to do now is pop Salazar.”
“What about Sterling?” I sure as hell didn’t want John Sterling free to move about the country, not when he knew about the money. And me.
Chance took out a pack of cigarettes and shook one out. He held them up, and I shook my head.
“He’s already in custody in the states, waiting for his trial date.” He lit the cigarette, leaned back and crossed his legs. “How’re things going here? The boys treating you all right?”
“Except for some of their taste in television, it’s been fine. But I have to be honest, Chance. The longer I’m here, the more nervous I get. I’m a sitting duck. You can’t tell me Salazar doesn’t have government informants. Eventually, somebody’s going to get lucky and figure out my location.”
“I’ve taken extra precautions and set up a bogus safe house down the street. All transmissions regarding you refer to that address. Only a select group of people from either agency know your actual location. If we think this house has been compromised in any way, we move you.” His serious gray eyes made me want to believe him.
“What’s the word on Witness Security?”
“Good news there. You’ve been cleared to enter the program as soon as you give your testimony at trial. New identity, relocation, a job, the works.”
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
“What percentage of takers end up dead?”
Chance shifted in his chair. “I’m not sure I understand your question.”
“Let me clarify. How many people who go into the program have their locations or identities compromised and wind up taking the big dirt nap? I mean, there must have been a few, right?”
A flash of something I couldn’t quite read flickered across his face. Then his expression hardened back to the competent DEA facade.
“Very few, Kate. And those were anomalies. Most were traced to the wit contacting a family member or friend.”
“How many is most, Chance? And can you tell me about the ones who did everything right, but still ended up dead?” I’d started to re-think this whole stupid testifying thing, mainly because I couldn’t shake a growing sense of dread. Granted, I didn’t have a lot to keep my mind occupied at the moment, but I tended to trust my gut instincts. I had a pretty good average.
Except with men. I had a long way to go before I could trust my feelings there.
“I can’t give you numbers. We don’t handle the program. U.S. Marshals do and they’re damned good at it as long as you follow the security guidelines.” He took a drag off his cigarette and leaned forward in his chair. “Listen. Nothing is fail-safe. Life isn’t that kind. It’s the best we can do at the moment. And it’s worked for countless people who did the right thing and testified against the big, bad criminals of the world. Without wits, a lot of scum would go free. I can tell you the program works for ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the people who go that route.”
“You don’t know Salazar.” Or Vincent Anaya, I thought.
Chance raised his hands, palms up.
“Your choice, Kate. Everybody has second thoughts about the program, and I mean everybody. It’s not easy to leave everyone and everything you know and start over. But what else are you going to do? Very few people know how to disappear. The ones that think they do end up dead or worse. You’re on Salazar’s list now, so anything that can help you stay alive is going to be better than going it on your own.”
After Chance left for the field office, I tried to occupy my mind by re-reading every book in the house. One of the security guys, Luis, shared my love of American thriller writers, so at least I had a way to get interesting reading material. It didn’t take long before I developed insomnia, and early mornings found me wandering from room to room, usually ending up in the kitchen for a pre-dawn snack or a shot of tequila to calm my nerves. The guys left me to my own devices for the most part, and didn’t insist on my adherence to house rules. Except for one–I couldn’t leave the premises.
It drove me bat shit crazy.
Late one night, I talked Luis into going with me for a walk. Not far, I assured him. Just so I could forget the bland yellow paint on the walls, and smell anything but enchiladas, if only for a little while. He caved when I promised to buy him the newest thriller by his favorite author in hardback.
Since we had to steer clear of the neighborhood streets, we hiked through the darkness in the dry arroyo behind the safe house, Luis with his AK-47, and me with nothing but my fear. Luis spoke of his family, whom he’d sent to live in the states.
“My father has said that Mexico reminds him of Colombia in the 1970s. The drug gang violence is escalating, and I can see it spreading to non-gang members. It’s very sad. Mexico is filled with good, honest people. It is only the brutal few that crave power and stop at nothing.” He glanced at me. “How did you get involved with a man like Salazar?”
“It’s not a good excuse, but I had no idea what he did for a living when I met him. By the time I figured it out, I knew too much about his family and friends. If I said anything about leaving or even wanting to visit my family, he threatened me. The more I learned about him, the more afraid I became. I knew then I’d never be free unless I escaped.”
Luis nodded, as though something connected for him.
“I won,” he said.
He looked a little sheepish. “The other guys and I took bets on why you were with Salazar.”
I crossed my arms. “And what was the consensus?”
“The majority agreed with Chance. That you were interested in the money and power, but that something happened to make you run–either a death threat or he wanted to use you as a mule, something like that.”
“And what did you think?”
“That you were naïve and got caught in his web. The other guys all dismissed it like I was romanticizing you, that no one would be that stupid…”
Luis had the decency to look embarrassed.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-“
“No apologies needed, Luis. I’m the first one to admit to being an idiot.”
We continued to walk in silence. The night sky glittered with brilliant stars. Insects sang to each other, reminding me of a time when I wasn’t constantly looking over my shoulder. What would my life look like in a month? A year? Once Salazar was locked up and I went into witness protection, maybe then I could relax, start a new life without the debilitating fear I’d been living with for so long.
The old man had said that only when I lost everything would I be safe. Not being able to contact my friends and family again sure felt like losing everything.
We started back toward the house. The inky black sky had lightened to a deep blue, signaling the approaching dawn. As we crested a small rise, a deafening explosion ripped through the still night. I fell to the ground, covering my head with my hands, and curled into a ball. Luis dropped to a crouch next to me and scanned the area.
“Get up. They blew the house.” Luis’ words came out hard and flat. I sat up and turned to watch as the house that once had the word safe attached to it was consumed in flames.
The rooms where I’d been less than an hour before were now a scorched, blistering scar on the once peaceful neighborhood. Blackened outlines where windows should have been gaped like toothless mouths open in a perpetual scream. Flames shot out from the second floor bedroom windows, the blinds and drapes feeding the fire like so much kindling.
No other houses on the block had been firebombed. What happened to the other safe house, the one Chance said he’d set up as a decoy? Confused, I looked at Luis. His jaw set, he grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet.
“Come with me.”
We cut across the arroyo and up the bank, keeping to the shadows. Thankful that he apparently had a plan, I followed him past the hulking, dark shapes of trees and bushes, jumping at every little sound. My rapid breathing and galloping heart were by-products of the adrenalin shooting through me. I wondered briefly if a stroke was in my future.
“They knew which house to target.”
Luis grunted. “Yes.”
“This means that Salazar has someone high up in either your agency or Chance’s.”
“Could you please answer me in complete fucking sentences? Because I’m a little freaked out right now and really need you to talk me down here.”
Luis stopped and wiped his hand across his face. “Or it was someone at the safe house.”
I hadn’t thought of that. Had anyone survived the blast? Luis was in the clear, since he’d been with the target. I ran through the different guards in my head, and couldn’t recall any of them acting out of the ordinary. My gut told me it was somebody within one of the agencies.
That was a problem.
Hyperventilation seemed much more imminent than a stroke, and just my luck, no paper bag to breathe in. I bent over, hands on my knees, and sucked in air, trying to control the anxiety that threatened to take over.
Luis rested his hand on my back. The small gesture helped to calm me enough that my thoughts became semi-coherent. I straightened and inhaled deeply into my lungs.
I nodded. I wasn’t, but that couldn’t matter. The distant glow of the burning house lit up the early morning sky. I turned to Luis.
“I want to see Chance. Now.”
Luis called Chance and told him what happened. He sent a car and driver to pick us up near a vacant lot several streets away from the safe house. Twenty minutes later, we pulled up next to a dark sedan with blacked out windows idling behind an abandoned building outside of town. The passenger side window slid down and Chance’s face appeared. Luis and I transferred to the back seat of the sedan.
Chance twisted around in the front seat and focused on Luis.
“From the reports, the house is toast. No one survived the explosion.”
“Diego and Raphael were inside–” Luis cleared his throat. Once he’d composed himself, he said, “Raphael’s wife just had their second child. A boy.” He stared out the car window.
Chance shook his head. “My guys have been with me for four years. They were the best team I’ve ever worked with. Survived Afghanistan.” He shook a cigarette from a pack on the dash and lit it, inhaling deeply. “Who would have thought an IED in Sonora would get them?”
My eyes started to water from the smoke. Chance hit the button on the door and the window slid down.
“Where were you two?” he asked.
Luis looked at me and then turned to Chance. “We–ah, well, we were outside.”
“Outside? You mean the backyard, right?”
Luis shook his head. “No sir, we-“ He shifted in his seat. “I accompanied her off the premises.”
Chance glanced at me and frowned. “So you broke protocol.” The statement landed flat between them.
“She survived. If you hadn’t done what you did, she’d be dead.” He narrowed his eyes and looked directly at Luis. “Do it again and you’re off the assignment.” Chance leaned back with a disgusted sigh. “How did he get the info? If anything, the decoy should’ve been blown.”
“Simple. He’s got someone in one of your organizations.” I’d been living with Salazar’s reach for the past three years. It didn’t surprise me. “And, unless you have a better idea, I think I’ll take my chances on my own.” I made to open the door, but Chance put a hand on my arm.
“You can’t walk away from this. Our case against Salazar can’t go forward without you.”
“What about Eduardo? He’s got more than enough information to put him away for years.”
Chance bowed his head, then looked at me, weariness evident in his eyes.
I sank back against the seat, too stunned to speak. My stomach twisted into knots as fear’s icy fingers wound their way up my spine.
“How?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know.
“They found his head in a plastic garbage bag at the border. We haven’t recovered his body.”
Anger boiled deep in my chest, and it was hard to breathe. “He trusted you. You were going to get him into the program.” My hands clenched so hard the fingernails cut into my skin.
Chance sighed. He looked twenty years older.
“That’s just it. The Marshals had him in protective custody, on his way to the states. They were ambushed just before they got to the border. We have no idea how they found him so fast.”
“Then Salazar’s got someone there, too.” My calm, steady voice belied the fact that I wanted to reach over the seat back and strangle the man sitting in front of me. “Remember the question I asked you that day in the back yard? About the ones that didn’t make it?” Chance nodded. “How many were involved with Salazar in some way?”
“How many?” I leaned forward, inches from his face. He looked past me at Luis, then back at me.
I recoiled as if he’d hit me. “Three? You put Eduardo in knowing that three of Salazar’s people died? And you think I’m going to cooperate? How fucking stupid do you think I am?”
Chance leaned forward, his face deadly serious.
“It won’t happen again. Yes, there’s a leak, but nothing is one hundred percent secure. Travel with armed agents is a hell of a lot safer than going solo. I put in the request to move you to the states. Once there, we’ll record your statement. After that, you choose what you want to do.”
I opened the door and got out before either of them could stop me. I turned and looked at Chance through the open window.
“You got it all wrong, Chance. I’m choosing what to do right now.”