Tag Archives: Serial Saturday

Serial Saturday- Bad Spirits Part V – Bad Choices

Happy Saturday, everybody! Today is the last installment of the Kate Jones thriller-novella, Bad Spirits (Books 1-5). If you missed Part I, Part II, Part III, or Part IV,  click on the ones you missed and then come on back. I’ll wait 🙂

All done? Welcome back!

Without further ado, Bad Spirits, Part V: BAD CHOICES

badspirits5

“Kate–” Luis called as I walked away from the car. I turned and watched him make his way across the weed covered lot.

“Here.” He handed me a wad of bills. “It should be enough to get to wherever you’re going.”

I gave him a half-smile and tucked the money in my pocket.

“Thanks. Luis, I’m sorry I–”

He shrugged. “Don’t be.” He nodded his head at Chance waiting in the idling sedan. “I think even he understands.” He pulled out a pen and a scrap of paper, wrote on it and handed it to me. “My cell. In case you change your mind.”

I folded it and put it in my pocket. “Goodbye, Luis. Take care of yourself and your family.”

I started to walk away when the car rolled up next to me. Chance leaned his head out the window.

“At least let me get you to a bus stop, for Christ’s sake.”

Luis handed me a canteen of water and they watched me board the bus to Mazatlán before speeding off into the early morning. Chance had continued to try to persuade me to stay, to trust him to keep me safe, but my mind was made up. Eventually, he conceded defeat and promised he would keep my surviving the explosion quiet for at least the next few hours. Grateful for that small window of time, I made it look as though I was heading to the large seaside city, knowing I’d have to delay the actual trip until I made a phone call.

As the desert scenery raced by, I felt a pang of guilt for not sticking around to testify. But then I remembered Eduardo and the thought of his execution hardened my resolve. I needed to take things into my own hands, stop trusting strangers. My life tended to work out better when I relied on myself. The times that I got into trouble directly corresponded to my bad choices in men.

All I had to do was avoid falling for anyone.

Simple.

I got off at the next stop–a small, dusty town several miles from the safe house–and found a phone. I dialed the familiar number and had to stifle a sob when my sister Lisa’s voice came on the line and accepted the charges.

“Lisa–”

“Kate? Is that you? Where are you?”

“I-I’m still in Mexico. Did you get the money I wired?”

There was a pause. I thought the connection cut out. Then I heard a sigh.

“Kate– I, yes, I did get the money.”

Relief flooded through me. “Oh, thank God. Lisa, I need you to wire it back to me–”

Another pause.

“I can’t. I promised not to.” The anguish in her voice spoke of indelible pressure from my older siblings. The ones who thought they knew best, always judging my life choices. Granted, they had a point this time, but I would never forgive them their lack of support. To me, family meant acceptance, love. I hadn’t hurt anyone but myself.

And Oggie.

“Lisa, you have to listen to me. It’s the only way I can get out of the country. I wired the money to you because I knew you’d do the right thing and keep it safe until I needed it.”

“I. Can’t.” I heard her take a deep breath, then slowly let it out. “They told me you’d just get into more trouble if I did. Kate, I’m so sorry I–”

I switched tactics and tried a harder line. “The money’s mine, Lisa. You need to wire it to me, now.” Lisa was the youngest of all of us and she caved whenever someone exerted authority. I hated doing that to my sweet, sensitive sister, but damn, my life was at stake.

She cried softly on the other end.

“I-I can’t, Kate. I’m so sorry–”

“Lisa, wait–”

The line went dead.

I stared at the phone. The overwhelming sense of abandonment surprised me. I’d always just assumed I could count on Lisa for anything. Anger soon replaced the loss I felt. I took deep breaths to calm myself and extinguish the dark thoughts I was having of my other sisters. Anger wouldn’t help me now. I needed to formulate another plan.

I hung up the phone and walked to a nearby bench to sit down and think. A scruffy, battle-scarred tabby slid past my leg and rubbed its head on my shoes, purring loudly. I reached down and scratched it behind its ears, glad for the company. Unscrewing the cap from my canteen, I poured some of the water onto the sidewalk. The cat lapped up the liquid, raised its head and meowed. Once it realized I had nothing else to give, it flicked its tail and disappeared behind a concrete building.

The way I saw it, I had two options, and neither one was exactly risk-free. I could go back to Lana’s in Los Otros and dig up the money I’d buried in her yard. Or, I could go back to Oggie’s. My stomach twisted at the idea.

The Lana option appeared to be the biggest risk. Her place was a long way from where I currently found myself, and much too deep into Salazar Country. The thought of having to retrace so many steps in such dangerous territory scared the hell out of me. I relegated the idea to Plan C.

But Oggie’s presented serious risks, too. When Salazar and Anaya got wind that I’d survived the explosion, they could conceivably post lookouts near his place in the event that I really had stashed the money somewhere nearby. I’d have to do a little surveillance of my own, make sure no one was watching the place before digging the backpack out of the cellar. But that used up precious time I didn’t have.

After agonizing over the pros and cons of each option I made my decision and purchased a ticket for the next bus to the small town near Oggie’s.

 

 

The bus rocked me into a kind of stupor and I fell into an exhausted sleep, waking sometime later when we lurched to a stop. The bus driver glanced at me in the rearview mirror and indicated that we were where I’d told him I wanted to get off.

As I walked past him, I thanked him and handed him a tip. He smiled and nodded.

“Muchas gracias, Señora.”

I watched as the back of the bus disappeared in a cloud of dust. The late afternoon sun inked the terrain with dense shadows. Careful to stay off the road in case another vehicle happened along, I began the long walk to Oggie’s house. I couldn’t take the risk of being seen. The only people who knew my current location were the bus driver and two older women passengers. I wasn’t too concerned about the women, and the bus driver had many miles to go before he’d mention the juarita he dropped off earlier that afternoon.

The temperature difference soared between the coast and the interior. Thankful for the canteen of water, I drank deeply to replace what I lost in perspiration. I could refill it once I made it to Oggie’s.

A few kilometers later, the small concrete house came into view. I stopped and scanned the area, searching for the telltale sign of someone waiting, watching. A fly buzzed next to my ear and I swatted it away from my sweaty face. Not seeing anything out of the ordinary, I settled down in the shade underneath a palo verde to wait for night fall.

As soon as the shadows had melted together in the deep twilight, I stood and stretched, then checked the main road. Nothing moved. I crossed the road to Oggie’s, stepping over the split-rail fence into his yard.

No sound greeted me–not even the chirp of a cricket. The place felt abandoned. I don’t know what I expected as I crossed the dirt lot and stopped in front of the broken cellar door. A dark discoloration stained the ground in front of me. Dried blood from Frank’s guy. I cast a nervous glance behind me, half expecting Frank to be there with a gun pointed at my back.

I shook off the fear and lifted the door. The gaping maw of the dark cellar yawned open, mocking me with visions of snakes coiled and waiting to strike. With clammy hands, I took hold of the ladder and climbed the few rungs to the dirt floor. I waited for my eyes to adjust to what sliver of light the moon gave me. The back of the cellar rested in total darkness.

Careful not to knock anything over, I groped my way toward the rear wall. A chill settled in my bones as cobwebs clung to my face and hair. Shuddering, I took a deep breath and wiped away the sticky filaments.

Finally, I reached the stack of boxes I’d stashed the backpack under and began to lift them out of the way, digging down to the bottom.

The pack was still there. I realized I’d been holding my breath and let it out with a sigh. My heart in my throat, I unzipped the main compartment and reached inside. Relief washed through me as my fingers closed around a fat stack of bills. I zipped the bag closed, got up and made my way back to the entrance.

I climbed out of the cellar and closed the door behind me. The falling darkness cast odd shadows across the abandoned homestead. Oggie’s house crouched in front of me in silent condemnation. I wondered if anyone had checked on the old man and his sick cat. What if no one had bothered to rescue Wild Bill? Too much time had passed since Oggie gave him his last insulin shot.

Without thinking, I skirted the side of the house and slipped around to the front door. I had no idea what the local authorities would do once they found the body. Murder probably wasn’t unheard of in these parts, but I doubted it was a common occurrence.

Oggie’s VW sat parked in the same place. I walked over to it and looked inside. No keys in the ignition. I reached in and checked under the seat.
Nothing.

A sense of dread traveled upward from my stomach as I walked toward the house, not knowing what I’d find when I opened the front door. What if no one had found him yet?

My mind rejected the thought. I’d read somewhere that a rotting body had a unique odor that was hard to forget. I doubted I’d be able to get this close without smelling something.

The door handle turned easily. I nudged it open, staying to the side in case I’d been wrong and someone waited for me. There’d been no activity during the time I watched the place, so I felt relatively safe in entering.

I edged in and closed the door behind me. Relieved the place smelled of stale kitty litter, and not a decomposing body, I crossed the floor to the kitchen sink and filled my canteen from the faucet. Then I searched the drawers and cabinets for car keys. In the third drawer I checked, I found a small wind up flashlight. I spun the handle until I got a thin beam of light and swept it around the room.

The chair Frank had tied me to still sat upright, but the one Oggie’d been sitting on lay on its side, pieces of tape still attached where his wrists and ankles had been. Dried blood stained the floor surrounding the chair. The scene blurred as tears welled in my eyes.

Oggie died because of me.

I angrily wiped the tears away and took a deep breath to clamp down on my emotions and continue my search.

The fridge light blinked on when I opened the door. The only items inside were a few bottles of Pacifico sitting next to a moldy bolio and an empty box of insulin. I closed the door and walked over to the small night stand next to the bed. The top drawer held a torrid romance and pair of reading glasses, along with a bottle of sleeping pills, but no keys. I looked under the bed, wondering what happened to Wild Bill. I quickly checked everywhere in the house a cat might hide, even though I knew Wild Bill would have come out to greet me if he was still around. Part of me wanted to stop looking, in case I did find him. The tiny bathroom held only the dirty litter box, and it didn’t look like it had been used recently.

I gave up the search and walked back into the living room, ready to leave.

A car door slammed.

Voices.

Cold fear arced up my spine. Gravel crunched outside the door.

I sprinted to the back door and slipped through just as the front door opened.

“If Frank is right and she does come back, I’ve got a little present for her.” The man spoke gutter Spanish. The other man mumbled something I didn’t catch. Probably because of the blood pounding in my ears.

“Who’s going to know? He wants her dead. What we do before we kill her will be our little secret, eh?” The men’s laughter ricocheted off the walls of the small house.

I backed away from the window, careful not to make any noise. Once I’d gone a few feet, I spun around and slammed into an old bicycle, connecting to it with a thud. I grabbed it before it toppled, and froze, waiting for the two men to come running out after me. I started to breathe again when the laughter resumed inside the house. I skirted the mesquites and slipped behind the cellar, hopped the low fence and started running.

 

 

I didn’t stop until the lights of the house had long disappeared behind me. Grateful for the shadows and the soft, blue moonlight, I continued to walk, working out how to hot wire Oggie’s car without being caught. No matter how I looked at it, it was a fool’s errand, and I’d end up dead. With no gun, I didn’t have a chance against those men. The weight of the money against my back assured me that I’d be fine without the car.

There was just one thing.

Salazar obviously knew I was alive, and by extension, so did Anaya. I had to get to Mazatlán. I needed the anonymity of a big city, both for dropping off their radar as well as securing a passport. There was no way I could go to San Bruno now. Salazar or Anaya would have someone searching for me in every town between here and Nogales, and I had history in San Bruno that Salazar knew about. Besides, I’d be able to fly anywhere from Mazatlán’s international airport. Salazar may have an extensive reach, but if he didn’t know my name, he wouldn’t be able to find me in a sea of tourists.

 

 

I woke to lush, tropical terrain flowing past me outside the bus window. I hugged my coat tighter against the bus’ frigid air conditioning. Outside, the air would be humid and warm. Memories of shrimp dinners and late night walks on the beach from a less complicated time crowded my mind, temporarily pushing away the fear that had become my constant companion.

The bus pulled into the brightly lit station in central Mazatlán. I grabbed the backpack from the overhead compartment and got off, orienting myself before negotiating with a cab driver for a ride to the hotel strip along the beach.

Mazatlán hadn’t changed much since the last time I’d visited. It was like remembering another person’s trip; a friend and I had just graduated from college and spent a week at one of the luxury hotels on the strip, dancing and eating and flirting with sexy Mexican guys, all the while believing this was our last hurrah before going back to the states and throwing ourselves into climbing the corporate ladder. She had an internship at her father’s law firm waiting for her, and I was going to be on the fast track at a prestigious investment company in downtown Minneapolis.

Then I met Roberto Salazar.

It’s funny how your life can change with one fateful choice.

I shook off the memories and had the cabbie drop me at a big luxury hotel midway down the strip. I paid cash for the room and ignored the front desk clerk when she looked questioningly at my attire. Good job being inconspicuous, I thought.

When I got to my room, I stuffed the backpack in the closet safe, stripped to nothing and threw my clothes on the king sized bed. Immediately, I went into the bathroom and filled the large tub with hot water and the hotel’s lavender bath salts. A phone call and half an hour later, room service delivered two margaritas and a perfectly grilled steak. I tipped the waiter with the last of the money from Luis, handed him my dirty clothes for valet service, sat down and inhaled the meal.

Margarita in hand, I wandered out to the balcony in my fluffy white robe to watch the orange and purple sunset over the Sea of Cortez. Tourists frolicked in the gentle surf several floors below. The joyful sounds of a large, seaside resort floated up toward me. It all felt so normal and safe. I sank into the comfortable chair and put my feet up on the low table. I was nothing if not good at denial.

The first margarita took the edge off. The second one helped me forget.

 

 

The next morning, I woke early and headed for the nearest drug store. I bought a pair of scissors, some hair dye and three pairs of sunglasses. On my way back to my hotel, I stopped in a trendy boutique and bought myself a little black dress with matching shoes and handbag, and another pair of jeans. An hour or so later when I looked in the bathroom mirror, I barely recognized myself. Goodbye, California blonde with long, sun streaked hair and no mascara; hello, serious looking woman with short, brown hair and exotic makeup.

I kind of liked the change. The shorter hair felt freer, and made washing it simple and fast.

After a late lunch of grilled prawns, I slid on a pair of faux tortoise-shell sunglasses and the stretchy black dress and shoes, and took the elevator to the lobby. I got in the first cab I came to and gave the driver directions. He glanced in the rear view mirror with a frown, as if to make sure I knew where I was headed. I nodded. He shrugged and drove away from the curb.

A short time later, we pulled up to the Mapas y Más storefront in the old section of Mazatlán. I paid the driver and asked him to wait for me, and then went inside.

The long, narrow shop held dozens of neatly stacked maps and books of maps, along with globes, magnifying glasses and intricate ships-in-a-bottle. A man dressed in board shorts and a Baja hoodie with hipster glasses and hair the color of wet sand stood on one side, paging through a large, leather-bound book. I walked past him to the back and rang the bell on the counter.

Behind the register, the dusty velvet curtain parted and a short, muscular man with a neck as wide as his head and the expression of an angry pit bull appeared. Dressed in black jeans, a white golf shirt and worn huaraches, he drew his shoulders back and lifted his chin when he saw me. I removed my sunglasses and smiled at him. His answering smile softened his hardened demeanor, but only a little.

Hola, Señor. Are you the owner?”

Sí. May I help you, Señora?”

I’d overheard Salazar mention the map store where I now stood as the best place to obtain forged documents in Mexico. The owner was well-known in the drug cartel world, and gladly acquired any kind of documentation requested. He worked fast, and asked no questions, preferring to remain silent about his clients, as many were members of rival cartels.

I cleared my throat and replied, “Please. I have heard that not only are you the purveyor of the finest, most comprehensive collection of maps in all of Mexico, but deal in procuring other items, as well.”

His eyes narrowed as he considered the gringa standing before him. He clasped his hands on the counter in front of him, his eyes shifting to my chest, emphasized by the low-cut, clingy black dress.

“It depends on what you need, Señora. I have many items for sale.” He continued his perusal, his gaze trailing up my neck to my eyes. My heart skipped a beat. I’d seen that look before. I could only describe it as deadly, and this man had it in spades. I tried to swallow.

Tentatively, I reached forward and touched his sleeve, wearing what I hoped looked like a flirtatious smile. “I’ve mislaid my passport. I am to leave your beautiful country soon, but can’t wait for my replacement, as I would forfeit the large sum of money I’ve paid for the remainder of my trip.” I leaned over the counter to give him a better view. “An old friend told me on good authority that you may be able to expedite the process–for a price.”

The man grinned, his neck muscles bulging even more. We both knew this was a bullshit story, but protocol dictated the false reasoning. That way, no one expressly acknowledged the true nature of the transaction. At least, that’s what I assumed.

I was wrong.

“I’m sorry, Señora, I wish I could help you with your dilemma.” He shook his head and lifted his hands, palms up. “Life would be very good indeed, if I would be able to do such a thing. I’d be a rich man.”

My cheeks burned as I realized my mistake. Of course. He didn’t know me from Adam. He probably thought I was going to turn him in–that I was part of a sting operation or worse. Why did I think he’d respond to a complete stranger? A woman, no less. I could have kicked myself for my stupidity.

“You should visit the American consulate. I’m sure they will be happy to help you.”

“I-I’m so sorry. My friend must have been mistaken.” I turned to leave and noticed the sandy-haired man staring at me. Still embarrassed, I ignored him as I passed, heading for the door. It looked like I needed a Plan B.

“Let me–” the sandy-haired guy said, and reached around me to open the door.

Australian accent. Looked like a surfer.

“Thanks,” I said, and walked through the door onto the street. My taxi was where I’d left it, the cabbie’s head laid back against the headrest, apparently taking a siesta.

“Is this yours?” he asked, indicating the cab. His brown eyes had an earnestness that made me smile. I was tempted to brush his tousled hair away from his face. He wasn’t bad looking, for a surfer.

I nodded and reached for the cab’s door handle.

“I can help you,” he said.

I turned to face him, sizing him up.

“What do you mean?”

“What you asked Juan for in there–a passport.” He looked around, casually. No one was within hearing distance.

“You know him?”

“Sure. Everybody knows Juan. But only a few know what he does on the side.”

Well, then. Maybe there was hope for this idea yet.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

He grinned, and his face lit up. “I thought you’d never ask.”

 

 

His name was Tristan. He was in his mid-thirties and I’d guessed right–he was from Australia and loved to surf. He landed in Mazatlán a month before and decided to take an extended break from his year-long surf odyssey.

“I wasn’t getting any younger, you know? I knew if I didn’t do it this time, I’d probably never get the chance.”

We sat at an open-air bar under a palapa, sipping margaritas. The ocean breeze felt like a caress on my face. If I closed my eyes, I could almost believe I was on vacation.

Almost.

“So what’s your story, Ava?”

I’d given him the name I picked out for my fake passport. The less people who knew me as Kate, the better.

“I’m a little embarrassed,” I began, sliding my finger around the rim of my drink to remove some of the salt. “My boyfriend and I had a fight and I left in a huff, forgetting my passport. Now he won’t give it back, and my flight leaves the end of the week. I met a guy who told me about Juan, but he didn’t mention I had to have an introduction in order to deal with him.” I shrugged and took a sip. “I didn’t get a number.”

Tristan leaned closer, his shoulder touching mine. He smelled faintly of salt water and spicy aftershave. I found myself relaxing for the first time in weeks. The margarita helped, and Tristan had a personal magnetism that reminded me of much better days.

Not to mention he had a great ass.

“If you don’t mind being from a different country than the U.S., I think it would only take a couple of days to get one made. Although, I’m warning you now, it will be exy.”

“Expensive?”

“Yeah. I think the last time it was ten grand, easy.” He finished his margarita and ordered a beer from the bartender.

“You want another?” he asked.

I nodded. What the hell. I hadn’t felt this good in a long time. An execution didn’t appear to be in my immediate future. And ten grand for a fake passport didn’t sound so bad.

Not if it meant getting as far away from Salazar and Anaya as possible.

We left the bar an hour later, headed for a nearby taco stand, giggling like fools from his outrageous surfer stories. He finished off a humungous burrito in the time it took me to eat a taco.

“Why don’t you come with me?” The invitation was delivered with nonchalance, but I detected intense interest in the answer.

I reached over and wiped a drop of salsa off his chin.

“You mean to Fiji?”

“Yeah. What do ya think?” He grinned and nudged me with his elbow. “There’s no better place to learn how to surf, guaranteed.”

He’d mentioned earlier that his next and last stop would be Fiji before returning home to Australia.

“Get me a passport, darlin’ and we’ll talk about it.”

“Too right!” He grabbed me around the waist and started to Samba in the street. I laughed and followed his lead.

He talked me into continuing our dancing at a club, but first, he’d parked his rented van along a side street and wanted to move it closer to the strip so it would be easier to find later. Once we’d accomplished that, we headed for a Latin dance club and more drinks.

By the time two o’clock rolled around, I was seriously ready to get back to my hotel room, and I wanted Tristan to join me. I felt a small measure of safety with him around, even though I knew I was deceiving myself.

As he walked me up the steps to my hotel, I leaned into him and nuzzled his neck. He tightened his arm around me and kissed the top of my head.

“Stay with me?” I asked.

He nodded, and we took the elevator to my room.

 

 

The echo of laughter followed by a door slamming shut in the hallway jolted me awake. I lay still for a minute, trying to remember where I was. The memory of Tristan naked brought a languid smile to my face and I rolled onto my side to snuggle up next to him.

The bed was empty.

I sat up and ran my fingers through my hair.

“Tristan?” No answer. I wrapped the sheet around me and slid off the bed, padding over to the open door to the balcony, half-expecting to see him reading the paper and drinking coffee.

Two empty glasses and a napkin from the night before sat on the low table. No Tristan. I mentally shrugged. Maybe he’d gone for coffee. I turned and walked back into the room, heading for the bathroom.

I stopped. Something wasn’t right.

I back tracked a couple of steps and looked again.

My breath caught in my throat. I sank onto the bed and stared at the closet.

At the open, empty safe.

No.

The events of the night before clicked into place, as though a lock had just tumbled to the right combination.

The sinking feeling in my gut told me the memory that I’d opened the safe and given him the ten thousand dollars for the passport after we’d made love wasn’t a dream.

But I also remembered resetting the safe and closing the door.

How long had he been gone? I flung myself off the bed and rushed to the closet where I threw on my freshly laundered jeans and tee-shirt, slid into my shoes and ran out the door to the elevator. The lift took too long, so I raced to the stairwell and flew down the six flights to the lobby.

When I reached the huge front door, I stopped to orient myself.

Left. We’d parked the van down the street to the left. Almost knocking the doorman over, I sprinted down the sidewalk, past the few early morning tourists sipping cups of steaming coffee, toward where we’d parked the night before.

Halfway down the next block, I spotted the van. Relief surged through me. At the same time hurt and anger at Tristan’s betrayal boiled to the surface.

I spotted him as he crossed the street, carrying my backpack. I was still too far from the van.

“Tristan!”

Startled, he looked up. Our eyes met. Without breaking stride, he opened the door, tossed the backpack into the van, got in and shut the door. He bowed his head for a moment, and then glanced up and watched me through the windshield as the engine turned over.

The force of the blast threw me backward onto the sidewalk. The explosion rocked the boulevard, shattering plate-glass windows and setting off car alarms up and down the street. I rolled to my side and lifted myself onto my elbow. A still burning door from the van landed in the street with a crash, narrowly missing a red car driving past. Pieces of what looked like singed hundred-dollar bills fluttered to the ground. A child’s wail split through the chaos.

I struggled to stand, and held onto the granite storefront next to me for support. Enveloped in flames, the van was a hulking, charred chassis, reminding me of pictures I’d seen on the news of roadside bombings in Iraq. I staggered closer, bracing myself in case some part of Tristan remained, but it seemed improbable that any of him survived.

The wail of sirens broke through the shock. I had to leave, now.

In a panic, I turned away from the scene, and realized I had nowhere to go, no one to turn to.  I couldn’t go back to my hotel room. Obviously, someone knew exactly where I was, who I was with and where I was going. I leaned forward and tried to catch my breath.

People ran in all directions. I scanned the crowd that had started to gather around the burning van, afraid I might recognize someone from Salazar’s army of gunmen.

That’s when I realized it could be anyone. Male, female, it wouldn’t matter. If they could get to me this fast, I didn’t have a chance. Fear rooted my feet to the spot. My brain screamed at me to run.

I forced myself to walk away.

Luis. I had to call Luis. It may not be the most secure option, but it was the best. They’d be careful. They knew Salazar had an informant in one of the agencies. Or, maybe it was Anaya. I had enough information on both to put them away for years. And, I knew how to find Anaya’s camp in the northern mountains.

I reached into my pocket, praying that the piece of paper with Luis’ cell phone number was still there. It was. I sighed with relief. The valet must have removed it prior to laundering the jeans, and then replaced it before delivering them to my room. With knees shaking, I walked into the next hotel and found a phone.

 

 

Twenty-four hours later, I was on board a helicopter, headed for the states. The game had changed after Luis transferred my phone call to Chance, and I told him that I had information on Vincent Anaya as well as Salazar. After his arrest, Salazar had made a deal with the Mexican government to betray Anaya in return for a lesser sentence. Ultimately, the DEA agreed to the terms, as Anaya headed an organization that reached well beyond Mexico. In return, they anticipated Anaya’s extradition to the U.S.

That didn’t happen.

With my recorded testimony, and that of two other witnesses, Anaya was sentenced to twelve years – in a Mexican prison. The Mexican judge was well known for being open to bribes, and the prison he chose for Anaya was well known for taking good care of its prisoners, for a price. He’d be able to run his empire easily from his cell, all with the protection of armed guards. Infuriated by what he viewed as the betrayal of the agents who lost their lives during the operation, Chance vowed to find a way to bring both Anaya’s and Salazar’s operations down, whatever the cost.

As for John Sterling, he received ten years in a federal penitentiary outside of Tucson. I’d be a distant memory by the time he got out.

The sentencing didn’t give me much peace of mind. I knew Anaya would be able to contract someone to kill me from prison. Salazar could, too, but paying someone to kill me would be more an expensive nuisance, especially if Anaya was trying to do the same thing. Why duplicate the effort? Anaya would certainly have Salazar killed in prison for his betrayal. Salazar could pay for protection, as well, but Anaya was more feared than Salazar, so I assumed it was just a matter of time.

Chance offered to place me in Witness Protection, but again, I refused. One of the agencies still had a leak, and supplying either Anaya or Salazar with my contact information would paint a big red bull’s-eye on my back. I opted to get identification on my own, with a little help from an informant Chance knew. Both Luis and Chance pooled their resources and came up with a few thousand to get me started, for which I was grateful.

The only problem being I had no idea where to go.

I couldn’t go home to Minnesota and put my family at risk, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near Mexico, at least for a while. The money I’d buried at Lana’s could wait. Things had to cool down before I could even think about planning a trip back there.

What I needed now was another plan. A plan to get me as far away from Mexico and Salazar as possible.

Luis walked me out to the field office parking lot and handed me a set of keys.

I glanced at them. “What are these for?”

He smiled and turned me around.

“It’s yours.”

Parked in front of us was a slightly beat-up, tan colored Jeep. The two-door, sporty kind. I looked at Luis.

“Really?” I’d always loved Jeeps.

“Really. It’s got a full tank.”

“Thanks.” It was all I could say. Luis turned to go, but stopped.

“Be safe, Kate. And remember–you can call me, anytime.”

I nodded, already making plans. I walked over to the Jeep. The asphalt radiated a furnace-like heat from the hot Arizona sun, but it didn’t bother me. The Jeep’s doors had been taken off and lay in the back. I’d have to buy a canvas top, if I was staying in this part of the country.

That was a big if.

I was now Kate Jones, unemployed, unencumbered, and completely on my own.

Time to go.

The End

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Serial Saturday–Bad Spirits Part IV – Last Chance

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!

badspirits4

LAST CHANCE

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.

Eduardo.

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?”

“Sure.”

“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.

“Won?”

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.”

“Yes.”

“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.

“All right?”

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.

“Sir, I-“

“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.

“Eduardo’s dead.”

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?”

“None.”

“How many?” I leaned forward, inches from his face. He looked past me at Luis, then back at me.

“Three.”

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.”

 


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