To celebrate reaching another milestone (yay! 1000 ‘likes’ on my author page), and since the recent Goodreads print book giveaway doesn’t cover all countries, I’m running an e-book giveaway! Enter now to win one of 10 e-copies of YUCATAN DEAD 🙂
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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.”
Here are some links to sources for free books. As always, check the current price to make sure they’re still free before you download. You’re welcome 🙂
Last Saturday, I decided to run Part 1 of Bad Spirits, the first novella in the Kate Jones Thriller Series. If you missed that installment, you can find it here. If you’re the type of person who can’t wait to read the rest of the story, it can be found (for free) on Amazon, BN and Smashwords (it’s also available at iTunes).
And now, without further yada-yadas, here’s part II:
Paranoia kept me off the highway. The blisters on my feet burned with each step. There weren’t many other transit options in this part of Sonora, apart from the occasional steer. Although I’d left John Sterling broken and bloody by the side of the road, he wasn’t the only one searching for the cash, and I needed to be careful, or I’d end up dead.
I wore my jacket even though the temperature had soared. The ball cap I used to hide my blonde hair didn’t prevent the sun from searing my neck, and I needed the coverage.
My spine ached from the weight of the money. I limped toward what looked like a small carne asada place that had appeared like a mirage on the horizon. Normally family owned, these Mexican versions of an open-air barbecue joint dotted the countryside along well-traveled routes. Since the highway I skirted happened to be the only one that led to San Bruno, I didn’t have the luxury of following a less popular road.
The buff colored hound sleeping in the shade of an ancient station wagon pawed at the air, chasing dream rabbits. The whitewashed structure’s silence told me I’d arrived after the lunch hour, with the inhabitants more than likely taking a siesta.
I shrugged off the pack and let it fall to the ground.
“Hello? Anyone here?” I called out in Spanish.
“One moment,” answered a man’s voice.
A burly, middle-aged man in a white tee-shirt and black trousers walked through the door at the back of the restaurant, wiping his hands on a towel.
I glanced at the menu board propped up on the counter. “May I have two tacos and a Seven-Up?”
He nodded, reached into an old cooler for my soda, and set it on the counter.
As he prepared my lunch, I scanned the road in each direction, aware of my vulnerability. Relieved that traffic was light, I took a sip of the Seven-Up and turned back to watch him.
Finished, he placed the plate of tacos in front of me. He glanced out at the dirt lot, a quizzical expression on his face.
“Where is your car?”
I took a bite of my taco. “I haven’t got one.”
“You’re a long way from anywhere. A woman alone needs to be careful.”
“When does the bus come by here?”
“Not until tomorrow.”
The hound shuffled past me, sniffed at the backpack and, disinterested, wandered off.
“Would you happen to know anyone around here who’s trying to sell their car?” It was a long shot, but the least I could do was try. Although the news of a gringa with cash would travel fast, my feet and back screamed for relief.
“I might be willing to sell that car over there.” He nodded his head at the dusty old pile of metal.
“As long as it runs. How much?”
“Two thousand dollars. US.”
I smiled. He knew an opportunity when he saw it. “No, my friend. The car is not worth nearly that much. Five hundred.”
He smiled back, revealing a gold incisor. “But then I will have no car. One thousand.”
“Is there enough gas to get to the next town?”
“The tank is half full.”
I sighed and made a show of thinking about his reply. I’d give him five thousand if it meant getting my ass to San Bruno faster.
“Seven-fifty. That’s my last offer, friend.”
He held out his hand and grinned. “Deal.”
Aside from the cloying cigarette smell and ripped upholstery, the car was perfect. No one would look twice at the ugly brown station wagon, and the cracked windshield obscured the occasional curious glance inside. The car’s shelf life would only last until I reached the next town, but I’d be that much closer to San Bruno. I didn’t dare keep driving. A bus was my only other option.
I pulled into Los Otros in the late afternoon. A small town within a short drive of the Sea of Cortez, the population consisted of mainly Mexican farmers, with a few ex-pats from the US sprinkled in. Its main street boasted a cantina, a bank, a drug store and a Laundromat. I took a left and parked along the curb on a side street, next to a dental office.
The bank had already closed for the day. My plan to transfer a portion of the money to my sister in Minnesota would have to wait until morning. I’d need to keep the amount small. Anything over ten thousand would attract unwanted attention in the US. The longer I dragged the money around, the more I realized I needed to find a way to unload it. Aside from digging a hole in the middle of the desert and burying it, the only thing that made any sense was to wire it to someone I could trust.
My younger sister Lisa was the only person in my family who had any idea how I’d been living the past three years. I didn’t trust the rest of my siblings to appreciate the finer points of making a stupid, life-changing mistake, like hooking up with a ruthless, power-hungry drug lord, and then stealing his money to escape.
I figured I’d transfer a little in each town I traveled through, holding out enough to buy a forged passport and pay my way back to the states.
I walked into the cantina and sat at a table in the corner. A kid of about twelve came over and asked me what I wanted. I ordered a Bohemia and asked him what time the bank next door opened.
“Nine o’clock.” He put a plastic basket of tortilla chips on the table.
“Where can I find a place to stay the night?”
He turned toward the kitchen. “Mama! This lady wants to know where she can rent a room.”
Mama walked through the doorway that led to the back. Tall and fit, energy radiated off her, belying the dark hair shot through with gray. She eyed me curiously.
“I have a friend, an American woman, who rents out her extra room. Twenty-five dollars a night. It’s not far, maybe two kilometers.”
She wrote down the address and made a crude map on the back of a napkin. I thanked her, paid for my beer and left, following the map to her friend’s place. I looked wistfully at the station wagon as I passed by. I couldn’t take the chance of staying with any vehicle for too long, so I left it at the curb, the keys dangling from the ignition.
The adobe house sat on a large rectangular dirt lot. Cheerful yellow curtains dotted the windows. Two lime trees grew next to a small shed. A profusion of lush plants in colorful pots greeted me as I followed the curving walk to the front door. I rang the doorbell and turned to survey the neighborhood. It appeared relatively quiet, with the exception of a stray dog and a kid on a bicycle.
“Yes?” The door opened and a woman with dirty blonde hair and a lived in face peered out, smiling.
“Your friend at the cantina sent me. She said you might have a room available for the night?”
“Yes, yes. Come in. You’re American?” I nodded. “Lovely. How long will you need the room?”
“Only for the night. I’m just passing through.”
She sighed. “Everyone ‘just passes through’ here.” She glanced at my backpack, then at the walk behind me. “Do you have any other luggage?”
“I travel light.”
She showed me to my room and I slid the pack under the bed. She asked me if I wanted to wash up before dinner. I said I would.
Her name was Lana, and she’d just turned forty the day before. We dined al fresco in her backyard under strings of lights, giving it a festive air. She served fish tacos with rice and had finished her third margarita by the time I’d barely drunk one.
“I came here ten years ago. Followed a man.” She shook her head, smiling. “You probably know how that goes.” She stared off into the darkness and took another drink. “Girl meets guy, girl falls for guy and follows him to another country. Guy leaves girl in one horse town with no money.” She shrugged. “Things a girl will do for love, eh?” She had no idea.
Lana noticed my drink was empty and picked up the pitcher. I placed my hand over my glass.
“I’d better not.” I leaned back, trying to relax and enjoy the mild, star-filled night, but that was a thing of the past, now. Alcohol only dulled my senses.
“So what’s your story, Miss I’m-just-passing-through?”
“I’m on my way to Mazatlan,” I lied. No sense leaving a trail for Salazar. “I have some friends there I haven’t seen in a long time.”
We talked long into the night, or, I should say, she did. I answered her questions with the truth if I could, lies if she got too personal. Around one she passed out in her chair, her snores cutting through the still night. I wrapped her arm around my shoulders, hoisted her to her feet and walked her to bed. After taking off her shoes, I tucked her in and walked out, closing the door.
I searched through the kitchen, found a box of plastic baggies in a drawer and took them to my room. There I pulled out several stacks of hundred-dollar bills from the backpack and stuffed them into the baggies.
Next, I carried the bags outside and set them on the ground alongside the two lime trees. Earlier, I’d noticed a pick and a shovel leaning against the house and went back to get them.
It took all the strength I had to hack my way into the caliche-filled ground between the lime trees and shed. At first I used the shovel, but finally resorted to the pick ax. Once I had a deep enough hole, I dropped the bags of money in and covered them with the remaining dirt. I poured water from the kitchen on the freshly dug earth, knowing it would be dry by morning and the evidence obliterated.
I returned to my room. My backpack was much lighter. I calculated roughly a third of the money now lay in the hole in the yard. Satisfied I’d found a necessary temporary home for the cash, I fell into a fitful sleep.
Sunlight streamed through the curtains, and my eyelids snapped open. At first unsure where I was, I remembered and sat up, glancing at the clock on the dresser. Eight thirty. Just enough time to have breakfast and walk to the bank. I hated doing the transfer in daylight, but didn’t have a choice.
I brushed my teeth with my finger and some toothpaste I found in the medicine cabinet and washed my face. Then I went out to the kitchen to see if I could get some coffee before I left.
Lana stood at the stove, frying eggs and bacon, talking to a dark-haired man sitting at the table. Instinctively, I stiffened. The less people I encountered, the better. Lana turned at the abrupt pause in conversation, and broke into a wide smile.
“You’re just in time for breakfast. Jorge dropped by this morning and offered to give you a lift into town.” She pointed her fork at me. “Kate, Jorge. Jorge, this is Kate.”
“Mucho gusto.” Jorge bowed his head, a charming smile on his face. My shoulders released a fraction. He seemed like a nice guy. Salazar’s men couldn’t have found me so soon. No one knew where I was headed.
We ate breakfast and drank coffee, making small talk. Soon, it was time to go. Jorge held out his hand to take the backpack.
“Thanks, Jorge, but it’s not that heavy.” He looked slightly offended, but shrugged as we walked out to his pickup.
We drove to town in silence, which was fine by me. I hadn’t slept much the night before, having jolted awake with every sound, and didn’t want to make the effort at more small talk.
Jorge pulled up to the curb near the bank and I thanked him and got out. I could feel him watch me walk through the bank’s doors. The teller at the window smiled and motioned for me to come to her window. I’d already separated $7,500 from the rest of the money in the pack, and reached into the front pocket where I’d stashed the bundle.
“I’d like to make a wire transfer to my sister in Minnesota, please.”
As I filled out the paperwork, I resisted the urge to look behind me. I handed the forms back to the teller and smiled. Tiny rivers of sweat ran down my back and under my arms, and beads of perspiration formed on my upper lip. Maybe wiring money to my sister wasn’t such a good idea. It left me exposed in public for too long. The game had changed–my penchant for acting on the first idea that popped into my head could now get me killed. I thought about grabbing the money off the counter and leaving, but stopped short as I realized the transaction was almost complete.
Something hard pressed into my back. I started to turn around to see what it was, and stopped cold at the familiar voice.
“Eyes forward, bitch.”
A cold wave of dread washed through me. Frank Lanzarotti. Apparently Salazar wasn’t the only one looking for the money.
I stared straight ahead and forced a smile when the teller handed me my receipt and told me to have a nice day.
“Turn around, real slow, and we’re gonna walk out that door together with a smile on our faces, got it?”
I nodded and we moved toward the door, Frank’s arm firmly around my waist.
As we neared the entrance, the guard smiled at us. I stopped and turned toward Frank.
“Oh, honey, I forgot to pee,” I whispered, loud enough that the guard blushed and turned his head. Frank stiffened and his hand clamped down on my waist, hard.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he hissed into my ear.
With no small effort, I pulled away from him, and playfully patted his arm. “Oh, don’t be such a silly, sweetheart. We have plenty of time.” I turned to the guard who was looking at everything except the two of us. “Sir, could you tell me where the ladies bathroom is, please?”
He cleared his throat and answered, “Of course, Señora. It’s down that hallway and through those doors.” He pointed toward the back of the bank.
“Thank you. Now, honey, it won’t take that long, I promise.” Frank’s expression was a mixture of cold, white fury punctuated with splotches of red on his cheeks. I turned around, fast, and headed down the hallway before my shaking knees and frayed nerves failed me.
I burst through the bathroom door and scanned the room for an exit. A bank of high windows ran along the wall in back of the two stalls. I kicked open the door to the first one and climbed onto the toilet. The window opened easily, and I hoisted myself up and over the sill, head first.
I fell to the ground and immediately got up and hauled ass. I made it several yards before I heard Frank scream at his guy to bring the car around. A bullet whizzed past me and pinged off the concrete wall of another building. I detoured through an alley and kept running.
Panic welled up inside of me. I didn’t know the town, didn’t know where to go. I just blindly ran, hoping for inspiration.
I rounded a corner and saw Jorge parked down the road in his pickup. Without thinking, I ran toward him, waving my arms, hoping somehow he could help me.
As I neared the truck, Jorge opened the driver’s side door and got out. I called out to him, but the words died in my throat when I realized he had a gun.
A cry escaped me as I skidded to a stop and fell backward. I scrambled to change direction, mid-step. The weight of the backpack threw me off-balance and I slammed into the ground. Jorge’s bullet barely missed.
I crawled onto my hands and knees, clawing at the dirt to get to my feet when I heard the music. A rusty old Volkswagen Bug kicking up dust roosters headed straight toward me. Classical music blared through the open windows. I dove behind a trash can on the side of the street. The driver of the VW drew parallel with me and slammed on the brakes, stopping in a cloud of dust. A large automatic gun attached to a skinny brown arm appeared at the side window.
The driver pulled the trigger. The staccato burst of repeating gunfire split the air. Then, silence.
I peeked around the side of the garbage can to look. Jorge lay sprawled on the ground, next to his truck. He looked dead.
Behind me, a dark-colored SUV flew past the corner and skidded to a stop.
“Get in,” the VW driver yelled. With no time to think, I ran around the side of the car and threw myself into the passenger seat.
“Stay down,” he barked, as the VW shot past Jorge and his pickup.
I stayed on the floorboards, afraid to look up, waiting for Frank’s bullets to perforate the car.
I tried to anchor myself to keep from crashing into the door and the gear shift as the driver, howling like a madman, steered first one way, then the other. I gave up and curled into a fetal position. The car bounced and bucked to the crashing strains of Rachmaninoff. I hoped like hell he didn’t drive us off a cliff.
He spun the wheel to the left and crowed with delight as the VW fishtailed out of a spin.
“You bastards’ll never catch us,” he yelled to no one in particular.
We took a hard right, slowed to a crawl, and stopped. He killed the engine. I lifted my head to see where we were.
“Stay down,” he hissed. I did as I was told. After a few minutes, he started the engine, and began to drive. To say the road he chose had a few bumps would be an understatement. I covered my head to keep from banging it to a pulp on the dash. The VW hit one last hole, and then the ride leveled out.
He turned in his seat to look behind us. “We confounded ’em,” he chortled.
I carefully lifted my head and looked out the window. We were outside of town, driving past scrub and open space on a paved highway. I breathed a sigh of relief and sat up in the seat.
My rescuer appeared to be about seventy. His face looked like old leather, and his hair resembled Einstein’s on a bad day. He had on a set of green scrubs and wore a pair of ancient huaraches on his feet. He turned off the tape player and we drove in silence. I did some deep breathing to still my pounding heart.
“Thank you,” I said.
He waved his hand at me. “I always hated that prick.”
“Enough to kill him?”
He shrugged. “I euthanize sick animals. What’s the difference?” He turned to me and grinned, extending his hand. “The name’s Ogden. I’m the local volunteer vet.”
Ogden, or Oggie as he liked to be called, had been a veterinarian in the Midwest for over forty years. He’d grown tired of shoveling Nebraska snow and decided to retire in Mexico when his wife died. He’d lived here ever since.
When I asked him how he came to be the volunteer vet, he banged on the steering wheel.
“One day I woke up and decided I had a moral imperative to help the poor farmers in the area. So I started stockpiling medicine whenever I went to the states. Pretty soon word got around.” He grinned. “Keeps me young. And, I’m never bored.” He gave me a sidelong glance. “Why was a piece of shit like Jorge after you?”
I sighed and looked out the window.
“Look, if you don’t want to talk about it, I won’t ask again. I’d just like to know what kind of hornet’s nest I stepped in.”
I owed him that much. Frank Lanzarotti was Anaya’s man, not Salazar’s. My life had just become exponentially more complicated.
Still watching the scenery flow by, I said, “Apparently Jorge was working for someone I used to know, Frank Lanzarotti, who works for a drug dealer out of Central America named Vincent Anaya. I was actually running from somebody else and thought Jorge might help me.”
Oggie snorted and swerved to miss hitting an opossum lumbering across the road.
“That’s a good one. Jorge and the word help have never been uttered in the same sentence, at least, not in recent memory.”
“Look, you can drop me at the next town, the next bus stop, hell, the side of the road, even. I don’t want to cause you any trouble. I owe you my life. You don’t need to be part of this.”
Oggie whistled. “Must be some trouble you’re in, Miss Kate. Tell you what–” He reached under his seat and brought out a silver flask, unscrewed the top and took a drink. “I’ll drive you anywhere you want to go, provided you fill up ol’ Bessie’s tank.” He patted the car’s dash affectionately. “But I have to take care of something first.” He took another drink and then offered me the flask.
I shook my head. “It’s too dangerous. There are some really bad people who want to see me dead, and they wouldn’t have a problem killing you to get to me.”
Oggie’s laugh ricocheted around the car.
“Hell, Kate. I’m so old, dirt’s asking me for advice. You think I give a rat’s ass about being safe?” He looked at me. “When you get to be my age, you’ll understand it’s not about how much time you got. It’s about how much life you get. Sitting on my ass in a rocking chair isn’t a life, far as I’m concerned. Besides,” he flicked on the cassette player and Rachmaninoff blasted through the speakers. “You need me.”
We pulled into Oggie’s place an hour later. The small, cinder block house with a metal roof sat in the middle of the square dirt plot surrounded by a split rail fence. A lemon tree and two mesquites stood sentry at the back of the lot near the house, providing the only shade.
I glanced back down the driveway. My nerves screamed at me to get moving, now.
“What’s going to stop Frank from finding your place?” Oggie didn’t appear to be a person who flew under the radar. His home would probably be the first place Frank would check.
“Only two people know where I live. I pick up my messages in town, and if there’s an emergency, the gal at the post office comes and gets me,” he replied. “I like it that way. Less bother.”
Something told me I wasn’t the only person who didn’t want to be found. “Who’s the other one?”
He shrugged a bony shoulder. “A lady friend. We haven’t spoken in a while, though.” He unscrewed his flask to take another swig, raising his eyebrows as he offered it to me again. I shook my head.
“No thanks. I need my wits about me.”
“Wits are highly overrated,” he muttered.
The one room house had a small bathroom off to one side. The kitchen lined one wall and a bed and dresser stood in a far corner. A wooden table, piled high with old newspapers and stacks of books, took up half the living area. I didn’t notice a television or a phone.
“This’ll just take a minute,” Oggie said over his shoulder. He opened the small refrigerator and took out a clear plastic bottle and a syringe. Then he walked around the side of the table. “Wild Bill needs his shot, don’t you boy?”
I looked down and realized what I’d thought was a sweater on one of the dining room chairs was actually a large cat. Oggie gathered Wild Bill up in his arms and sat on the chair. He kissed the hairy feline on the head and murmured into his ear.
“We don’t have time for this.” I kept a nervous eye on the driveway.
“If I don’t give the little feller his insulin, he’ll lapse into a coma and probably die. Now, if you’ll just quit your chit-chat, I can give him the shot and we’ll be on our way.”
He injected the cat and set him on the floor. Wild Bill meowed at me, annoyance plain on his face. Then he shook his head and slowly trundled out the door.
Oggie and I heard it at the same time. A dark-colored SUV barreled down the dirt drive toward us.
“Oh, God. It’s Frank.” My voice matched the panic that constricted my chest.
He squinted at the car. “Quick–” He shoved me toward the back door. “There’s a root cellar behind the mesquites.”
I grabbed my pack and ran.
The cellar turned out to be a hole in the ground with a weathered wood door covering it. I heaved the door open and dropped the pack inside, then scrambled down the handmade ladder, slamming the door behind me.
Not the best hideout. The thought of disrupting a nest of snakes or scorpions crossed my mind. Scorpions I could live with. Snakes, not so much. Light streamed in through gaps in the door that allowed me to see, once my eyes adjusted. I pulled the gun out of the front pocket of the pack and crawled as far back as I could go, behind jars filled with some kind of preserves and boxes of dried vegetables.
I stuffed the pack in the rear of the space, underneath a couple of boxes, then turned back toward the door and held my breath, listening. A sickening feeling twisted my stomach, and visions of Frank beating Oggie to death for information played like a bad movie in my brain. Frank wouldn’t care who he killed to get the money.
I had a gun. I could use it to help him. But, then again, so did Oggie. He knew how to take care of himself.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I needed to be calm. If I tried to make a decision in panic mode, things could go to hell, fast.
The gun felt faintly reassuring. I opened my eyes and stared at the door, willing Oggie to appear and tell me everything was fine. The longer I sat there, the less certain I became.
I raised my gun at the sound of someone approaching, and aimed it at the door. The footsteps stopped and a shadow fell across the gaps in the wood.
The door opened and fell to the side with a bang. I blinked against the bright light, at first unable to make out the person who peered inside the cellar. Then, I recognized him.
And pulled the trigger.
For more Kate Jones, stop by next week for the rest of the story:
Bad Spirits, Part III – Rock and a Hard Place / Saturday, March 16
Bad Spirits, Part IV – Last Chance / Saturday, March 23
Bad Spirits, Part V – Bad Choices / Saturday, March 30