Tag Archives: serials

Serial Saturday–Bad Spirits Part III – A Rock and a Hard Place

Welcome to Serial Saturday! A couple of Saturdays ago, I decided to post the novella that started this insane e-publishing journey I now find myself on: Bad Spirits (Books 1-5). Yes, it is available for free almost everywhere, but I know some of us are just too Cover for Bad Spiritsdamned busy to click on over and download stuff, so I thought I’d make it easy for everyone. And, it’s a two-fer, cuz it allows me to think I’m being productive. (I’m all about efficiency, you know, but I’m also very good at denial 🙂 ) If you missed last week’s installment, here’s the link to part II. If you’ve just shown up, have a seat, find a snack, and click here for part I.

Bad Spirits Part III – A Rock and a Hard Place

Cover for Rock and a Hard Place

Frank’s guy dropped his gun and fell to the ground, groaning and clutching his knee.

I moved to the front of the cellar, next to the ladder under the door, body humming with tension.

“You’re not going to make it, Kate.” Frank’s voice sounded like he was near the house. “I guarantee I’ve got more bullets than you do. And a hell of a lot more time.”

I leaned back and pounded my head against the cold dirt wall.

“I don’t have the money, Frank,” I yelled back. I searched the darkness at the rear of the cellar to make sure the pack couldn’t be seen from the doorway.

“Well, then we have a problem, don’t we? Tell you what–” Frank paused.

I waited, but he didn’t say anything. Then, “You tell me where the money is and I’ll let the old guy live.”

He sounded closer. Frank was using the conversation as a diversion so he could move in on my little hideaway. I turned and aimed the gun at the doorway, perspiration running down my back despite the chill of the cellar.

The ragged breathing from Frank’s guy made me want to scream at him to shut the hell up. I was tempted to pull a Jack Bauer and climb out of the cellar shooting for all I was worth. But this wasn’t a television show and that would get me killed. My mind raced for an alternative to winding up dead. At least Oggie had survived.

Unless Frank was lying.

“Come on out, Kate. It’s over.”

He was right on top of me, near the door. The bastard was smart. He stayed out of my line of sight so I didn’t have a clear shot.

If I stayed below, he’d wait me out and eventually I’d either fall asleep or die of thirst. If I surrendered, he could kill me, which didn’t seem likely since I knew where the money was. No, he’d torture me until I told him where I’d stashed it.

Then he’d kill me.

I could always try to wait them out, hope they fell asleep first. Maybe Frank’s guy would bleed out and then it would be a more equitable standoff.

Not many choices.

“You know, Frank. I’m kind of caught between a rock and a hard place.” I hoped that my voice so close to the door would make him show himself and I could get a shot off.

“That’s true.”

No such luck. He stayed where he was.

“See, giving myself up just doesn’t seem to be a healthy alternative, if you know what I mean.”

The sound of Frank’s chuckle sent chills up my spine.

“Well, Kate, you probably should have thought that one through before you took the money.”

I sighed. The gun weighed heavily in my hand.

“Tell you what, Kate. I’ll give you a break, for old time’s sake, all right? You throw out whatever firearms you have down in there and come out real peaceful-like, and after you tell me where the money is, when I do kill you I’ll make it quick.”

“Gee, Frank. You’re the man.”

I had no choice. Killing myself wasn’t an option. I’d figure out a way to escape before he killed me. I had to.

After I quieted the screaming in my head, I took a deep breath and tossed the gun through the door.

“You win, Frank. I’m coming out.” I climbed the ladder and crawled onto my hands and knees. Frank picked up my gun and aimed his 40 caliber at me. I stood, hands behind my head, and glanced at the man I shot. He’d removed his shirt and was using it as a tourniquet around his leg. He looked pale and clammy and was shaking like a wet dog.

“You should probably get your guy to a doctor, Frank. Looks like he’s going into shock.”

“Shut up.” Frank walked behind me and gave my arm a vicious twist. “You should be more worried about what I’m going to do to you.” He shoved me forward and marched me toward the house, leaving the other man on the ground.

I stumbled through the front door, Frank’s gun at my back. Oggie sat taped to a kitchen chair, his face a mess. Frank pushed me into another one along side of him. He grabbed a roll of duct tape from the table and proceeded to wrap it around my wrists and ankles, and then to the chair.

Oggie’s right eye had swollen shut. I gave him a look that I hoped said how sorry I was. He shrugged and shook his head. It broke my heart.

Frank dropped the roll of tape on the table and walked out the door without a word. I turned to Oggie.

“God, Oggie, I’m so sorry you had anything to do with this.”

One-half of his mouth twitched up in a grimace. The other side was too bruised. It gave him a macabre look with the streaks of blood down his face.

“My choice, Kate. Not yours.” Wild Bill meowed at him and rubbed against his leg. “Probably one of the worst ones I ever made, but it’s mine.”

I grew silent at the sound of crunching gravel.  Frank walked back inside.

“I usually let Manny do the honors, but since you shot him, it’s up to me. Now,” he slid a chair over and sat down in front of me, leaning his arms on the back. “Are you going to tell me where the money is, or am I going to have to beat it out of you?”

“It’s gone, Frank. I just wired the last thousand to a friend when you found me at the bank.” If I could get them away from Oggie, maybe he’d forget about him. Let him live.

Frank sighed and shook his head. “Now I’m the one caught between a rock and a hard place, Kate, darlin’. If I don’t bring the money back, my ass is in a sling. I already searched the house and that rat-infested cellar. It ain’t here. Your old buddy here didn’t know anything about it, either. Didja, killer?” He reached over and ruffled Oggie’s hair. Oggie jerked his head away.

“I can’t kill you until I get my hands on that money, so I think we’re at what you call an impasse.” He rose from his chair and moved it out of the way. Then he stepped closer and punched me, hard, in the stomach.

I hinged forward, gasping. Good thing I hadn’t eaten recently.

“Stop!” Oggie strained against the duct tape.

“Why? Are you going to tell me where the money is? Hmm. Didn’t think so.” Frank cracked his knuckles and turned to me. “Salazar said not to mess you up too badly. I won’t leave any marks.”

So I’d be a blemish-free corpse? I sucked in a breath and sat up. Little spots appeared before my eyes.

“What do you mean, Salazar? I thought you worked for Anaya?” I wheezed.

“I do.” He grinned and leaned over, next to my ear. The thick, oily scent of Aqua Velva drifted toward me. My gag reflex was working overtime.

“You stole Anaya’s money.” His hot breath skated across my cheek. Icy dread reached deep into my gut and twisted.

“What do you mean? The money was in Salazar’s van, at Salazar’s house.”

“Yeah. Well, that van was on its way to Anaya’s camp in the mountains. It was Salazar’s payment to Anaya for a shipment.” Frank shook his head. “You really fucked up, Kate. Not only did you steal from Salazar, but in reality, you actually ended up stealing from both of them.”

The import of what he said hit me like another blow to the stomach. I was a dead woman. Vincent Anaya wasn’t known for his temperate ways. With Salazar, I might have had a slim chance of staying alive. He loved me, once. Didn’t he?

A cold-blooded bastard, Anaya’s reputation had risen to mythic proportions in the Mexican and Central American drug running communities. No one messed with Anaya. Not unless they had a death wish. Or were incredibly stupid.

Apparently, I fell into the latter category.

Frank pulled his gun from its holster and stepped next to Oggie. He rammed the barrel against his temple. Oggie closed his eyes.

“Where’s the money?”

“I told you, I–” He pulled the trigger and I screamed.

Click.

I stared at his hand. The gun hadn’t fired.

Frank chuckled as he raised the gun, as if to inspect it. “Hmm. Must not have had a bullet in there. Fancy that.” He pulled the slide, chambering a bullet, and held it back against Oggie’s head.

“Don’t give him the satisfaction, Kate.” Oggie practically spat the words out.

Frank sighed and rolled his eyes. “Where’s the money?”

“I told you, I don’t have it anymore.” My voice shook.

“Not the answer I’m looking for.”

“Wait–” A sob escaped me. I squeezed my eyes shut. I had to tell him.

But then Frank would kill us both.

Out of nowhere the theme from the 1960s television show Hawaii 5-0 filled the small house.

“Shit,” Frank swore under his breath. He pulled his gun away from Oggie’s head, reached into his front pocket and took out his cell phone.

“Lanzarotti,” he said, as he turned and walked away.

I tried deep breathing to calm myself, but the adrenaline proved too much to conquer. Oggie had his eyes closed. His thin chest rose and fell with his breath. Frank stopped talking and walked back to where we sat, holstering his gun.

“Seriously. Hawaii 5-0, Frank?”

“Why not? At one time I was quite the surfer. Nobody rode the tube like I did.”

My shock must have shown. A strangely defensive expression crossed his face.

“Hey, I was a teenager once.”

“Were you an asshole then too, or did you grow into it?”

“Fuck you.” He produced a switch blade and stepped behind me. I winced, waiting for the pain. It never came. He cut my hands free, then bent down to do the same to my ankles.

“Hands in front,” he barked.

I did as I was told. He wrapped duct tape around my wrists, and yanked me to my feet.

“What are you doing?”

“Time to go,” he said in a clipped tone.

“Where?”

He didn’t answer.

###

Frank parked the SUV in the expansive front drive, under the portico. Salazar’s hacienda-style mansion hadn’t changed in the short time I’d been gone.

But I had.

I’d known where we were headed as soon as Frank turned onto the familiar highway. The hammering in my chest made it hard to breathe.

Once Frank had secured me in the front seat of the SUV at Oggie’s, he’d gone back inside the house. A single gunshot shattered the quiet. I hung my head in despair. The old man was right. Bad spirits surrounded me. I hoped Wild Bill would be all right.

Frank had laid Manny on his good side in the backseat. He’d slipped in and out of consciousness during the long drive. As soon as we arrived, two of Salazar’s armed guards hustled out and carried him inside.

Frank came around to my side of the truck, threw open the passenger door and yanked me onto my feet. He dragged me up the tile steps to the huge copper doors leading into the courtyard. The beauty of the setting didn’t register. I was Salazar’s prisoner.

Again.

Frank shoved me through the door into the cool interior. Salazar’s imported Italian gravel crunched under my feet. I used to love coming home to the splashing fountain in the beautiful courtyard. Now it grated on my nerves. The cheerful yellow walls and lush hanging plants had been my idea. How could something that once seemed so good turn so bad?

That’s the last time I fall for the head of a drug cartel, I thought. Oddly, the gallows humor made me smile.

I was sick, sick, sick.

“Bring her here.”

I looked up to see Salazar standing on the second floor balcony. His dark hair framed his tanned, handsome face, and I reluctantly remembered why I’d fallen for the bastard. Conflicting emotions fought their way to the surface. Revulsion, attraction, fear. I checked, but found no trace of tenderness. There might be hope for me yet.

“Move it,” Frank muttered. He grabbed my elbow and pulled me toward the stairway.

My legs wouldn’t budge. I’d seen Salazar’s men take others up these stairs against their will, and my body froze. I was now one of them.

Frank half-dragged, half-carried me up the steps. We reached the second floor. I dug in my heels and dropped to the floor. Frank wheeled around, his face twisted in anger.

“Get up.” He reached for his gun.

“I’m not going in there, Frank. People don’t come back out.” I shook my head and squeezed my eyes shut to stop the tears. Salazar would view crying as a weakness, and he despised weakness.

“Let her go.” Salazar stood at the end of the long hallway, smoking a cigarette. His eyes held the same flint-like coldness as when I saw him slit the throat of his friend. It seemed like such a long time ago, although I’d been gone only days. I tried to say something to him, but my mouth had run dry.

Frank released me and I struggled to my feet. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hands and stood tall. Damned if I’d be on my knees when he killed me.

Salazar walked slowly to where I stood. He ran his hand under my jacket, caressing my breast, and smiled. I shivered, though not from desire. I thought my head would explode from the searing hatred that coursed through my body. I fought to keep my expression neutral.

Salazar made a tsking sound as he circled me like a wolf with its prey.

“You disappoint me, mi corazĂłn.” He leaned against the balcony railing, and shook his head. “I give you all this–” He spread his arms wide. “–and you repay me with betrayal. Not only that, but you have betrayed Vincent Anaya, and at the same time trampled my name in the dust.” He stared into the distance. His jaw flexed.

I didn’t say anything. He would not let me speak unless and until he gave his permission. I’d seen a similar game with those below him in the pecking order, although it was different with me. Not only had I betrayed him, but in his world, a woman would never leave him. His enemies would view this as a crack in his control of the organization.

Frank stood by at a discreet distance, hands clasped in front of him. The perfect soldier, I thought. Just in case the crazy American woman did something stupid, like hurl herself off the balcony into the courtyard below.

I had to admit, it occurred to me. If I could have guaranteed myself no broken bones, I’d have launched myself over the railing as soon as Frank let me go.

Salazar turned to Frank and muttered something about whether he had recovered the money, to which Frank replied that he hadn’t. Salazar gave him a dark look. “Anaya’s waiting by the pool. I will be there shortly.” Frank nodded and left. To me he said, “Walk with me.”

Salazar’s voice was deceptively gentle. I mirrored his slow, deliberate steps down the long corridor.

“You know I have to make an example of you, yes?” He glanced at me, as if to gauge my reaction.

“Actually, Roberto, you could prove your great strength by letting me go free. Only the most confident of men would let his woman go in peace, with no need for revenge.” It took a tremendous amount of effort to keep my voice steady.

Salazar erupted into laughter. Not the reaction I’d hoped for.

He wiped his eyes and draped his arm around my shoulders. “I have missed your unique way of thinking. It’s so refreshing.”

We stopped next to a closed, wooden door. He pushed it open and we entered the room. I tried to calm the voices inside my head, urging me to turn and run. I knew if I tried anything, things would turn out far worse.

The smell of fresh paint still permeated the air, and the tile floor looked like it had recently been scrubbed. The desk and chair in the corner belied the room’s true function.

There were no windows. Illumination came from a bank of track lighting along the ceiling. On the wall opposite the door hung various lengths of chain with leather cuffs attached to the ends. These chains were connected to a pulley that dropped from the ceiling. My former bodyguard, Eduardo, sat at a large console with rows of buttons in the middle of the room.

Eduardo stared straight ahead, avoiding my eyes. At the end, he’d been the one shining example of humanity in this madhouse of ego and greed. He always excused himself from Salazar’s “meetings” and I’d never seen him raise a hand to anyone. If I ever needed a person to talk to, he was always there to listen.

And, he taught me to shoot.

He’d been the one who showed me how to handle every kind of weapon Salazar possessed, including a machete. The other guards called me mujer Americana loca because of my dedication to target practice. I liked being referred to as crazy. People left me alone.

I cherished my time with Eduardo.

The fact that Salazar chose him to perform whatever torture he’d devised for me spoke volumes. But of course, he would blame Eduardo for my escape. He was my bodyguard. He’d been assigned not only to protect me, but to watch me, too.

“Eduardo has been given the task to find out where you hid the money.” Salazar walked to the wall of chains and lifted one, inspecting the cuff. “He has my permission to use any means necessary to extract your confession.” He stared hard at Eduardo, then at me. “Any means. Although, I have ordered him to keep you alive. For now.”

“I don’t have the–”

“Silence!” Salazar’s expression held a sharp warning. I swallowed my words.

As Salazar walked out, he paused for a moment to whisper something in Eduardo’s ear, then moved past me and closed the door with unnerving finality. The room started to spin and I placed my hands against the wall to steady myself. I wondered briefly what would happen if I fainted.

Eduardo rose immediately and came to my side. He guided me to a chair and lowered me into it. Old habits, I thought. I leaned back and watched the only person I’d thought of as a friend during my time here. I’d been wrong about that, too.

“Eduardo, please–”

He held his finger to his lips, a warning in his eyes. Silently, he slipped over to listen at the door. After a few moments he came back and squatted in front of me.

“You know that Salazar or one of his guards is outside that door, listening for your screams,” he whispered. I nodded, unsure what he was getting at.

“We have to make this look real, like you’ve been tortured in the extreme, or Salazar will replace me with someone who is not sympathetic to you. ÂżTu comprendes?” Again, I nodded that I understood.

“I will have to use some electricity to shock you.” He glanced at the console in the middle of the room. “I can make it so that you only feel a light jolt, but you must moan and carry on as if it’s the most excruciating thing you’ve ever experienced.” A vein throbbed in his neck. “But first you have to tell me what you did with the money.”

My body tensed. So that’s the way we were going to play it. Good bodyguard, pretending to be bad, but getting the information all the same. If I broke down and told Eduardo where I hid the money, there would be no reason to keep me alive. If I didn’t tell him, I’d be alive, at least for a little while. Only then Salazar would replace Eduardo with some sadistic creep who’d be happy to draw out the pain.

Eduardo reached over and took my taped hands in his, looking deeply into my eyes.

“I am not going to let them kill you, if I can help it. You must trust me.”

An idea began to formulate in my brain. Why hadn’t I thought of it before?

In a low voice I said, “Frank stole the money.”

Eduardo looked surprised for a moment, then a slight smile played at the edges of his mouth. “You’re lying.”

“What do you mean? He took the money.”

Eduardo shook his head. “Your eyes move to the right when you lie. Remember that when Salazar questions you.” He thought for a minute. “They’ll confront Frank. They have to. Salazar and Anaya are already paranoid about each other. If you cast doubt on Frank, it will buy us time.”

I didn’t know why Eduardo thought more time would help my situation, but I would work with whatever he decided. At the moment, he was my only chance.

“We need to begin. Someone will come in to see why I haven’t started yet.”

Eduardo led me to the wall of chains. He cut through the duct tape that bound my wrists and then slid a cuff over each one, securing them. Little wires sprouted from each cuff, attached to a larger wire that had been threaded through the chain attached to the ceiling. The rest of the wiring ran to the console. He walked back to the controls and flicked a switch. The chain started to clank its way through the pulley, and as the slack decreased, it lifted my arms over my head, stretching me so that my toes barely touched the floor.

The first shock came as a complete surprise. I didn’t have to pretend to scream. My muscles contracted and I jerked like a fish on a line. I glared at Eduardo.

“Where’s the money?”

“I told you, Frank stole it.” My voice came out shaky at first, but grew stronger.

Another shock racked my body, this time less intense, but still nothing I wanted to repeat. It reminded me of the time I’d accidentally grabbed onto an electric fence on a friend’s farm. I screamed, hoping it matched what others had done before me. By the look on Eduardo’s face, I was convincing.

“Where’s the money?” Eduardo raised his voice.

“Frank has it,” I said, through clenched teeth.

The shocks continued before finally he signaled to me that I needed to ratchet up the screams. The next bolt of electricity shot through me. My fingers curled in on themselves as my body contracted with the current. I broke out in a cold sweat as I threw my head back and screamed.

“Where’s the money, Kate?” Eduardo’s voice echoed off the walls of the small room.

“I– told you.” The words came out in a ragged gasp. “Frank.”

Eduardo nodded and rose from his chair. I heard the door slam as he walked out. My arms had no feeling left in them. My shoulders throbbed as though they’d been dislocated from their sockets. I hung my head, too weak to look up. I realized he had to do what he did, and shuddered to think what the real thing would be like.

Eduardo returned a few minutes later. Or maybe it had been a few hours. I’d drifted.

“Look at me.” A hand grabbed my chin and yanked my head up. I opened my eyes and stared into Salazar’s face. The anger in his eyes would have made me weak in the knees, if I wasn’t there already.

“You told Eduardo that Frank stole the money?”

I nodded.

He dropped my chin and began to pace.

“Anaya will never believe it,” Salazar muttered.

“Of course not.” Eduardo replied. “Don’t you see? It’s the perfect alibi. Why take her word against his?”

“Yes, yes, I see. But we can’t accuse him in front of Anaya. He would kill us both for the insult, even if it is true.” He stopped pacing. “You’re sure she’s telling the truth?”

“She didn’t change her story, even when I gave her the highest voltage I could without killing her.”

Salazar’s breathing was the only sound in the room.

“Take her down.”

###

I struggled out of the dim fog that shrouded my brain. They’d left me lying on a bed in a dark room with the shades drawn. Disoriented, I sat up and slid backward on the mattress until the headboard stopped me.

Something thudded against the door. I froze, holding my breath as I strained to hear.

Silence.

With difficulty, I rose from the bed and groped my way to the door. I thought I heard movement in the hallway. I tried the light switch, but nothing happened.

I slid my hand along the wall, and backed away from the door.  First a chair, then a dresser impeded my progress. Neither of them held anything I could use as a weapon. There wasn’t even a telephone.

The sound of a key being inserted into the lock had the same effect on me as an electric shock; both my muscles and my breathing stopped. I recovered and backed against the wall, wanting desperately to hide, knowing I didn’t have a chance. I slid to the floor and curled into a ball.

The door opened, followed by the thud of more than one set of footsteps. Several hands grabbed my arms and hauled me to my feet. A ripping sound preceded a piece of tape slapped over my mouth. I couldn’t get a good look at anyone, even with the light from the hallway. Each of them wore dark clothing and a ski mask.

Then someone yanked a hood over my head.

My executioners had arrived.


Serial Saturday — Bad Spirits Part II (Just Passing Through)

COver for Bad SpiritsLast 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:

Just Passing Through Cover for Bad Spirits 2

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.”

“Apparently.”

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.

Right.

“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


Serial Saturday

DV at Hacienda RuinsHey there. I’m finally back from the wilds of Mexico and since I haven’t written word 1 in about 3 weeks, I thought I’d post the first novella in the Kate Jones Thriller series here, just to make it look like I’m being productive.

The one that started it all, Bad Spirits, was originally published as a serial in the fall of 2010 (I took it back in May of 2011 and uploaded it myself, so the pub date reflects that). Yes, it’s totally free at most etailers, but I figured a lot of us are just too damned lazy to hop over to Amazon or Barnes & Noble or iTunes or what have you and download something, so thought I’d try to entertain ya’ll right here, right now. I’ll post each Saturday, for a whopping 5 Saturdays. Whew! That, my friends, is dedication. Especially after lifting so many Margaritamargaritas on the beach at La Buena Vida…So, without further procrastination, here you go.

And don’t say I never gave you anything…. 🙂

BadSpirits1

BAD SPIRITS (Part 1)

Something didn’t feel right.
Dark.
Dirt floor.

My left side ached, and I could barely swallow. I sat with my eyes closed and tried to recall what happened. The events from the previous night came crashing back into the present, and the fear of discovery threatened to overwhelm me again.

I peeked around the corner of the corrugated steel building. A lone goat munched on some dried grass near a split-rail fence. A few yards away a rooster pecked at the hard, dry earth. An older woman with salt and pepper colored hair and skin like a walnut scattered seed in front of him. She clutched a brown and white serape around her against the early morning chill.

Everything appeared calm, bucolic, even. I leaned back against the metal wall and took stock of my position.

Salazar ruled this little section of Sonora with an iron hand. The woman outside would not help me, for fear of payback. In fact, no one who knew him would be fool enough to assist Salazar’s crazy American woman.

Especially when she took something that belonged to him. Something he valued above all else. And it wasn’t only his pride, although that would be enough to get me killed.

I opened the canvas backpack next to me to make sure the contents were still safe, that I hadn’t somehow lost it all in my mad rush to escape.

The cash was all there. I breathed a sigh of relief. It meant my survival. Without it, I would have nothing with which to bargain for my life, if it came to that. As it was, the stash wouldn’t get me the immediate help I so desperately needed. It wasn’t like I could call a cab in this part of Mexico, even if I had a phone.

If I knew Salazar, he’d already locked down the small airport a few miles away, and was probably trying to bribe aviation officials in Hermosillo, ObregĂłn and even Puerto Peñasco, although each of the towns lay miles from his hacienda.

I needed to get to San Bruno, a small fishing village on the Sea of Cortez. Salazar didn’t have much pull with the ex-pats who lived there. Besides, they’d help a fellow American.

Especially one with a boat load of dinero.

I zipped the backpack closed, stood up, and heaved it over my shoulders. Funny how much money weighed.

I waited until the older woman had stepped inside her weathered home, and then I quietly slipped away down the dirt road, careful not to disturb El Gallo as he strutted past the disinterested goat.

I tucked my blonde hair up under a baseball cap to hide it and hitched a ride west on the back of an ancient Ford pickup. The driver looked me over once and waved me into the truck bed to sit with the alfalfa, probably thinking I was some silly gringa on a tourista’s adventure. I was glad I had grabbed an older jacket from one of Salazar’s bodyguards. All of my clothes were too new, too expensive. I’d be a prime target for bandits. As it was, I was a sitting duck lugging around the cash, paranoid that everyone knew I’d stolen millions of dollars from a notorious drug lord.

What I’d seen last night confirmed my worst fears, and then some. I’d been in denial about Salazar’s true nature, and it hit me like a bullet to the brain. His expression held no remorse, even as he sliced through the man’s throat- a man who, until that moment, had been a loyal soldier in Salazar’s increasingly bizarre attempts to own the Sonoran drug trade. My sense of self- preservation skyrocketed, and I took the only way out.

It seemed like the Hand of God had intervened, and I’m not given to religious hyperbole. I’d abandoned the delivery van a few miles from the ranch the night before, and grabbed as much cash as I could stuff in the backpack. The vehicle had been parked in the drive with the keys and money in it. I simply took the initiative.

I made myself comfortable, and had to inhale great gulps of dusty air to counteract the nausea and shaking as I watched the sun rise in the distance, and the road race away from the back of the pickup.

I woke as soon as the pickup stopped. We’d parked next to the imposing white mission of the town of Santa Theresa.

“This is as far as I am going,” the driver said in Spanish. I thanked him and asked where I could get a good breakfast. He pointed down a nearby street and indicated the second restaurant I would come to served the best Huevos Rancheros in town.

I sat in the shade under the palm roof, aviator sunglasses on, a can of Fanta in my hand, as the aged Mexican woman prepared my breakfast. A dark-haired boy, about four years old, played hide and seek with her while she cooked. I’d always loved the casual, family-centered vibe of Mexican restaurants. No hurry, enjoy your meal. It didn’t matter what you looked like, or where you were from, you were there to share in one of life’s greatest gifts: food.

The woman set my plate down in front of me and smiled shyly. The little boy stood next to her and peered over the edge of the table, curious to see how the gringa ate her breakfast. I grinned at him and thanked her, and poured her homemade salsa on my huevos. Then I topped it off with a few jalapeños. The woman walked away and after a moment’s hesitation, the little boy scurried after her, giggling.

I finished my soda and had walked to the counter to pay for my meal when a white SUV with smoked windows drove by, slowing as it passed the restaurant. I moved behind one of the roof supports. The truck looked familiar. The woman behind the counter glanced at me, then shoved the little boy underneath the brick counter with a terse admonition.

The SUV moved past us and turned the corner. Not waiting for the change, I grabbed the backpack and ran out the rear of the restaurant, into the alley.

The white SUV sat idling at one end. The passenger side door opened. I heaved the pack over the fence in front of me and scrambled after it, scattering chickens and dogs as I landed hard on my ass. The sound of squealing tires told me I needed to move, now.

I sprang to my feet, shouldered the pack, and sprinted through the backyard, headed for the door of the cinderblock house. The teenage boy sitting on the couch didn’t have time to react other than to open his mouth in surprise as I burst through the door and plowed through his living room, knocking over chairs and leaping over plastic toys on the floor.

I skidded to a stop when I reached the front door and eased it open, careful to check each end of the dirt street that ran in front of the house. The SUV was nowhere in sight, so I slipped out the door and started to run.

I heard the SUV before I saw it and veered right. I ignored the heavy pack mashing my kidneys as I ran, determined to escape with both my life and every ounce of the money. I caught a glimpse of the kid from the last house out of the corner of my eye, running parallel to me. If he kept it up, there’d be two dead bodies in the street.

“Get back inside!” I yelled. He continued to match my direction and motioned for me to follow him. I couldn’t think of a better plan, so I did. He slipped behind a rusty corrugated building and I tracked right behind him.

The sound of the SUV skidding to a stop on the gravel street, followed by angry male voices spilled over me. I ran like I’d never run before, knocking crates over, oblivious to anything not nailed down in front of me, never once losing sight of the boy’s red shirt.

He led me into a rabbit warren of alleyways, jogging first one way, then the other. I was completely disoriented by the time we stopped. I bent over, trying to catch my breath, and let the backpack sag to the ground. He was breathing heavy, too, although not as much.

He held a finger to his lips. I struggled to slow my breathing and listened. A television commercial for a sports drink blared a few doors down. Somewhere a dog barked. There was no sound of Salazar’s men or the SUV. I sighed with relief.

“Who are you?” I asked the kid in Spanish.

“Manuel.”

I held out my hand. “Manuel, I am so happy to make your acquaintance.” He smiled and shook my hand, nodding.

“Why did you help me?”

Manuel shrugged. “You were in trouble.”

Good enough for me. I inspected the area where we stood. A six foot high concrete wall surrounded us, the space open to the sky. Mismatched plastic chairs surrounded a white plastic table covered with a cheerful flowery table cloth. A metal bird cage hung from a wrought iron stand, with no bird in sight. Two wooden cases of empty Seven-up bottles stood in the corner.

“How do I get out of here?” I asked.

Manuel frowned. Then his face split into a big smile.

“My Uncle Javier can give you a ride in his truck. He will take you wherever you want to go.”

“I have a little money. I can pay him.”

Manuel grinned. “Even better. My uncle will do almost anything for money.”

###

The panel truck was a tad overcrowded. It appeared that Uncle Javier had a side business that involved smuggling humans.

There were a total of thirty two people besides me in the back. I sat between a young couple from Jalisco and an older, indigenous man dressed in a poncho. I didn’t understand his dialect very well, and after a few attempts at communication, I gave up and talked with the younger couple. The smell of excitement and fear permeated the truck. Everyone there had paid dearly for the chance to cross the border into the US, and stories about disreputable ‘coyotes,’ as the smugglers were called, abounded.

I felt a small measure of safety, since I wasn’t taking the same route. Once Uncle Javier dropped his cargo off at a prearranged place, he’d drive me to San Bruno, where I’d be able to find simpatico ex-pats who would help me leave the country.

The rest of the travelers, however, didn’t have it as good. The US government had recently beefed up security along the Arizona border, and bandits had flocked to the area, attracted by the easy money of ripping off the migrants, who needed help to get across.

The compartment grew stuffy and uncomfortable, but no one complained. The young couple from Jalisco had dreams of opening a restaurant in a small town outside of Flagstaff, where several of the woman’s relatives lived. They asked me many questions about what they could expect, and I tried to give them realistic answers, explaining that Arizona was not what you’d call immigrant friendly. They’d heard about the controversy, but had been told they’d be able to get work visas easily. I told them I thought there was a very long wait for these visas. They remained undaunted.

After a few hours, the truck slowed to a stop. The sound of slamming car doors and muffled voices echoed in the dark. Someone disengaged the handle on the other side of the door and rolled up the panel. Silhouetted against bright headlights, two masked gunmen pointed AK-47s at us.

My hand moved instinctively to a zippered pocket on the backpack. Luckily it was dark, and the gunmen didn’t notice. I slid my hand back to rest on my thigh. There was no reason to pull out a gun at this point. I’d be dead in seconds, as would the rest of the occupants in the truck.

“Everyone out!” The taller of the two gunmen waved his weapon to indicate where we should go. People began to gather their things. Husbands wrapped protective arms around their wives as they murmured in fear. I helped the indigenous guy to his feet. His eyes had an intensity I found oddly reassuring. We moved toward the open door. Once ten people had climbed out, the gunmen barred the rest from getting off the truck.

I barely overheard the other gunman’s orders as he demanded the people hand over all their valuables, or they would be shot. They opened their belongings and he rifled through, looking for money or jewelry. Once the first group had been robbed, the next ten were told to come out of the truck. The younger couple, the indigenous guy and I stayed behind in the last group. I wouldn’t give up my backpack without a fight. I moved to the back of the line, quietly pulled out my gun and shoved it into the waistband of my jeans. It was loaded with a round chambered. Eduardo had taught me well.

We inched closer to the gunmen. Adrenaline took the place of the fear I’d been feeling, and everything appeared crystal clear. I was probably going to die, but would damn sure try to take out the gunmen before they hurt anyone. The thought didn’t surprise me. After living with a man like Salazar, I’d never again be the same person who’d traveled on her own to Mexico three years ago.

It seemed like a lifetime.

I watched as the rest of the passengers stepped off the back of the truck. The gunman motioned for the older man to get out. He bent over as though to tie his shoe. Then he straightened and whipped his poncho to one side, revealing a sub machine gun. He let loose with a barrage of bullets, mowing down both of the gunmen. The assault was so unexpected neither of them could get a shot off before the old man’s aim found its mark. Miraculously, he hit none of the passengers.

With a sharp cry Uncle Javier ran blindly into the creosote bushes. The old man let him go.

At first stunned, soon everyone clamored to touch his hand and thank him. I slumped against the wall of the truck in relief and closed my eyes against the grisly sight of the dead men.

The young couple I’d been talking with said something to the old man that I didn’t catch. He replied and nodded his head. I moved closer to the couple and asked what he’d said.

The young woman had tears in her eyes. “He said he was sent to protect us.” She wiped her eyes with her hand. “He said the spirits moved him to come to this place and bring a gun. He also said to tell you to trust no one on your journey.”

Apparently. How the hell was I going to make it all the way to San Bruno without trusting someone?

After recovering the items taken from them, a few of the male passengers dragged the dead gunmen out of sight. The older man in the poncho guided everyone else into the back of the truck. His eyes held mine for a moment. He seemed to look through me, as though he knew my mind. The young couple walked up beside me and the woman took my hand.

“He says you are not coming with us.” Her expression mirrored the concern on her husband’s face. “You must be careful.”

The old man murmured something to her and she turned to me.

“He says there are bad spirits surrounding you. He will say a prayer to intercede for you, but you must not rest- not even when you think you are safe. It is for this that the spirits wait.” The old man leaned over and pointed at me as he spoke again.

The woman’s eyes darkened. “He tells me your destiny is to live looking over your shoulder, never knowing when these spirits will come for you- until you give up everything. Only then will you be free.”

Okay then. Well. I’d never been good at taking advice, and tonight was no different.

“Tell him thank you, and that I will consider his warning.”

She spoke in rapid sentences. The old man looked up, shook his head and laughed, then walked away. She shrugged and said, “He’s an old man,” by way of explanation.

I said goodbye to them both and walked over to the gunmen’s truck. The keys dangled from the ignition.

I took the initiative.

###

I drove through the night, glad for the anonymity of the darkness. I had to swerve to avoid a small herd of steers somewhere outside of Moctezuma. Otherwise, the trip was uneventful. I stopped for fuel at a tiny roadside station and woke the proprietor, who did not appreciate the interruption.

I’d made it to the outskirts of Hermosillo by sunrise, and decided to try my luck by continuing to drive in daylight. The truck didn’t agree.

The four-wheel drive coughed and sputtered its way to the side of the road, and then died. I got out and lifted the hood and checked the belts, the hoses, and whatever filters I could find. I had no idea what was wrong. It had been a long time since I’d worked on a vehicle, and my skills were rusty. Not to mention the truck was a later model, and most of its components were either electronic or impossible to get to.

I lowered the hood and reached in the passenger side for my backpack. With a sigh, I shrugged on the pack and started to walk.

The first couple of cars zoomed by me so fast I barely had time to stick my thumb out. The third slowed and stopped just ahead, waiting for me to catch up. It was an old Ford Galaxy convertible- long, low and sea green, with a trunk the size of Manhattan. The driver had a goatee and wore Wayfarer sunglasses, a Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap with a purple Vikings logo.

I threw the pack in the back seat and sat in front. The gun was still in my waistband, just in case this guy turned out to be a serial killer. Or a Fox News anchor.

“You like the Vikings?” I asked.

“Yeah. They haven’t won a playoff in years.”

So he was American. I looked more closely at him. He reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Probably some celebrity. “You from Minnesota?”

“Nope. Virginia. I just like the Vikes. How about you?”

“Minnesota, born and bred.”

We drove in silence for a while.

“What’s in the pack?”

I tensed. Too personal. The old man’s warning flashed in my mind. “Just stuff,” I replied.

He snorted. “Stuff? What kind of stuff?”

A feeling of dread swam through me. Just take it easy, Kate. He’s a friendly American, that’s all.

“Oh, you know, the usual. Clothes and things.”

“Looks pretty heavy.”

“Well, there are shoes, too.” I hoped my smile looked innocent enough.

“What’s a pretty thing like you doing out here in the middle of the Sonoran desert?” He glanced in the rear view mirror. “That pickup truck back there on the side of the road yours?”

“I wish. I’ve been hitching for days.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know a guy named Roberto Salazar, would you?”

I nearly choked.

He smiled. The scenery reflected off his sunglasses.

“I guess you do.” He glanced at me. “Don’t freak out. I’m one of the good guys.” He reached for the glove box, hesitating until I nodded for him to go ahead. My hand rested under my jacket near the gun.

He pulled out a badge that read Drug Enforcement Administration, Special Agent.

Shit. A backpack full of drug money and I catch a ride with a DEA agent.

My options had just narrowed considerably. The larger question was how did he make the connection? Had news of my escape really spread that fast?

I was torn. If I told him who I was, he’d detain me for questioning, and possibly arrest me since I’d been involved with Salazar. On the other hand, I’d get a free pass to the states, maybe even a new identity if I volunteered information. It was possible he already guessed my identity.

I decided to test the waters.

“I’ve heard of him.”

“What have you heard?”

“That you don’t want to get on his bad side.”

“Sounds about right. Ever met him?”

“Once, at a party, I think.” Better to establish a slight link rather than play completely stupid. “Hey- do I know you from somewhere? You seem familiar.” My hand inched toward the door handle.

He chuckled and pushed on the accelerator. The Galaxy’s speedometer read sixty-five, then seventy. Alarm shot through me like a lightning bolt, and that old familiar panic returned.

“Why don’t you slow down? You’re making me nervous.”

He sped up in response. “How can a little speed make you nervous? Living with Salazar was so much more dangerous.”

I glanced out the windshield. We headed straight toward a bend in the road. I strapped on my seatbelt. His grin reminded me of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

“Scared, Kate?” He turned to look at me.

“Stop-” The words died in my throat as the Galaxy plowed into the side of the black steer standing in the road.

As if in slow motion, my upper body and legs flew forward from the force of the impact, the center of my body anchored in place by the single strap of the seatbelt. Glass shattered and metal screamed, drowning out the animal’s bellow.

A deathly stillness followed the crash. The punctured radiator hissed steam. Dazed, I unhooked the seatbelt and opened the passenger side door, and fell onto the roadside. My gun dropped onto the road with a clatter. I grabbed it, then dragged myself up onto the door to stand, gasping and choking from having the wind knocked out of me.

I felt around for broken bones, but didn’t find any. The driver’s seat held shards of glass instead of the driver. Warily, I stepped around to the front of the car.

The steer’s dead body lay wedged underneath the front wheels. At least it had been quick. My backpack rested a few yards further up the road. It appeared to be intact. I walked over to retrieve it when I heard a moan.

He sat slumped against a mesquite tree on the side of the road. Blood from a head wound stained his Hawaiian shirt a dark red. His left leg canted out at an unnatural angle. The ball cap was nowhere in sight. He watched as I approached, his breathing ragged.

With no cap and sunglasses, I finally recognized him, even through the blood on his face.

I aimed the gun at his chest.

“I thought you said you were one of the good guys.”

“You won’t make it, Kate. Salazar’s got everybody out looking for you, and he didn’t say he wanted you alive. I came to find you before they did.”

“Gee, thanks John. That was real nice of you.” I should have known the square jaw, the aquiline nose. John Sterling was DEA, all right, but not the good kind. He wanted the money, not me.

“Give me your gun.” I pointed at his armpit.

He sighed as he slid his hand underneath his shirt to the shoulder holster I knew he always wore. The rhythmic rise and fall of his chest belied the difficulty he had breathing. After a couple of futile attempts, he let his hand drop to this thigh.

“I can’t.”

Careful to keep my gun out of reach, I leaned over and slid his Glock out of the holster, then stepped back.

He closed one eye and squinted. “You gonna kill me?”

I considered the question for a moment, let him sweat. Then I shook my head.

“No.”

He nodded. “Didn’t think so.”

I turned to go. The backpack felt much heavier than before.

“He’ll find you. Salazar never quits.”

I shrugged the pack onto my back.

Neither did I.

***

Bad Spirits Part II – Just Passing Through / Saturday, March 9

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


%d bloggers like this: