***Wilson Ranch, East TX***
Grace had not slept well. She had the dream again. The one where she was running in the desert. Something or someone was after her. She was all alone, not knowing what direction to go. Of course, it did not take a genius to understand what it meant. But still, it had haunted her for weeks. That and the guilt.
Maybe Gerald McBride was not her biological father. She certainly had her doubts. But even if that were true, the man had chosen to raise her as his own. He had housed, clothed, and fed her for fourteen years. He had paid for her schooling and all those extra-curricular activities. Hell, even though she knew that her mother had guilted the man to come to them, but he had shown up.
Okay, so maybe he had other reasons. But she had never believed what her friends said. Hadn’t they shown they could not be trusted? Except it had not been just one, but several girls made accusations of inappropriate comments and accidental touches. Hell, the past couple of years, she had felt uncomfortable with certain hugs.
Of course, she had always known that her parents had not shared a bedroom. At least not for as long as she could remember. But more than one of her friends’ parents were the same. And she heard whispers among the staff about her father’s affairs. In particular, the maids made sure their daughters were never around the house. After one, not that much older than she was, had supposedly…
But what did that matter? Hadn’t the man proven that he genuinely loved them? Or at least her. She was, after all, his only living child. Whether she carried his DNA or not, he must have believed that. Why else would he have risked everything to bring them here?
And what had she done? How had she returned his kindness? Those words still haunted her every moment. And now, there was no way to take them back. No chance of closure, as they called it.
It was still dark outside. Much earlier than she usually woke up. But there was no way she was getting back to sleep now. Maybe she should just get up.
Perhaps she could play a bit on Butterfly Migration? That boy, Diablo91, had overtaken her old high score on the leaders’ board. And while her new account had finally managed to make it onto the board, she had a long way to go to catch up, let alone take back her place at the top. But her heart was not in it. There was just too much crap going on in her life. Too many questions. Too many lies.
Maybe she should go out to the barn? Spend some quiet time with Inferno and the new foal. Hadn’t she always felt more connected to animals than humans anyway? Maybe she could talk to them. Try to figure out what to do now. Yeah, that would be best.
Grace rose from the bed. She had continued her old habit of putting out the clothes she would wear before going to bed. So there was no reason to even turn on the light. If she wanted time alone with her friends, she did not want to wake her mother or Chad. She tiptoed to the door and opened it just a bit.
The hallway was dark, but there was no doubt about what she saw. The large figure snuck from her mother’s room. She closed the door before Chad could see her. She wanted to slam it. No, she wanted to go out. Scream, yell, demand the answers that she deserved. But she didn’t.
Lies. It was all lies. Who knew maybe they were having an affair all this time? Perhaps that was why Gerald had all those other women? After all, divorce was just not done. Not in their circle. Didn’t most of her friends’ parents stay together? Whether for the children’s sake or because divorce was messy and expensive. And the ones who had divorced, well, things were never the same. Maybe it all made sense now?
She could not go out to the barn now. Not if that man was awake. But there was no way she would get back to sleep now. She picked up her iPad. Butterfly Migration it was then. She opened the app. The first thing she noticed was that the boy had added substantially to his lead over her old score. It was hopeless. There was no way she could catch up to that.
Not on the new account. She was too far behind him now. But… But not if she logged into the old one. She closed the game, logged out, and then back in under that old profile. What did it matter anyway? There probably was no real danger. Why would anyone come after them? Especially now that Gerald was dead.
No, she was tired. Tired of the lies. Tired of living her life by everyone else’s rules. It might not be much, but maybe this was her first step to freedom?
The moment she logged back in, she was inundated with old messages and friends’ requests. She ignored them. But then a window popped up. A private message from him – Diablo91.
‘Hey, long time no see. Where have you been?’
They had only messaged a couple of times before. She barely remembered the kid. But what the hell? Maybe it was time to get inside the mind of the competition.
‘Sorry. Family trouble. I see you have been busy.’
She lost herself in the game and occasionally chatted with her competition. By the time she closed the tablet and went down to face the liars, she had put at least a tiny dent in his lead. She would come back to it later. It might take her a while, but she would get back on top.
She might have no control of her life, but in-game, she ruled. It felt good to be back, at least.
It was getting dark already. Mercy was exhausted. Every muscle in her body seemed to ache. She had been up since before dawn. She had cooked, cleaned, fed, and wiped up the shit of the man who was her father in name only. It had been the same for over a month now. Every day. Seven days per week. Twelve or more hours per day.
She was unsure whether she wanted to scream or cry or simply throw up the rice and beans that she had eaten for lunch. She was past the breaking point now. This waiting was driving her insane. Waiting for something. She was not even sure what.
There had been no sign of Bebe. Or even proof of human trafficking. Diego had effectively isolated them. Not only from the outside world but from all except a handful of people in the town. She and Will had been given a single room above the cantina that she believed also served as the bordello. It should have been the ideal opportunity to discover what the man was up to. Except no one would speak with either of them.
Of course, they had been careful to continue the façade that Will did not speak Spanish. He had tried hanging out in the cantina, taking his meals there, while she slaved to care for her ‘father.’ But other than taking his order, no one spoke to him. He had not even been able to overhear anything useful in all that time.
Mercy supposed things were more difficult for him. At least she had a role, as distasteful as it sometimes was. But she had something to do. Even if she knew that everything she did and said was being watched and reported back to the man who was her older brother and one of the world’s most dangerous men.
Will did not even have that. He waited. And waited. And waited. For some test of loyalty that still had not come. Was that a good thing? Or a bad?
Every day she watched the man, who had been deported even before she was born, deteriorate more. It was just a matter of time. Days, weeks, or months, she had no idea. What then? It was almost inevitable. They would be killed when they were no longer useful. Unless they could escape first. But how?
She collapsed into the chair next to his bed. He was almost asleep. This old man was nothing more than a shell of bones and skin. Other than her and a couple of night nurses, no one came to see him. His wife, Consuela, came once a week with a priest and some older man, supposedly a doctor, though Mercy was beginning to doubt it.
The bottles of ‘medicine’ that they left seemed to worsen his condition. In desperation, she took to spilling more of it than she gave him. She had even risked pouring some of it into the orange tree in the corner of the room. It had died.
But what was she to do? What were they to do? Escape seemed unlikely, if not impossible. And now, it was even more crucial than ever.
“How is he?”
Mercy turned to stare at the man who had held that automatic weapon on them that first day. The man that she had learned was her brother. Her younger half-brother anyway. Roberto Garcia. The concept was strange, having a younger sibling. She had been the ‘baby’ all her life.
He was Hollywood handsome. He was also intelligent, educated at some of the best private schools and universities in America. Though not yet thirty, the man held not only a degree in business but an MBA from Harvard.
But still, he was their flunky. She could not understand that. Why would this man who could do anything follow the orders of someone like Diego or their mother? Why hadn’t he used his education, if not his looks, to break free of their influence?
He nodded as he took a seat at the foot of the man’s ornate bed. “They say that I look like him.” He lifted their father’s hand. Though it was gnarled, thinned, and bruised, he held it silently for several moments. “Maybe that’s part of why Mama hates me so much? But mostly because I was not a girl. A daughter.”
Mercy was not sure what to say. So she said nothing. “Our family is cursed, you know.” He turned and stared into her eyes. His brimmed with unshed tears, and something moved inside of her. He looked more like a helpless little boy than a gun-toting thug at that moment. And those big sister yearnings inside of her burst in her chest as she shook her head.
“Or Mama thinks we are. But isn’t that what matters? Whether you believe in something or not?”
“I guess,” the words seemed inadequate, but she was uncertain what else to say. Was it some sisterly love that she had never imagined burgeoning for this man? Or was it that this was more information than she had gleaned in over a month here? Did it matter? She needed to keep him talking. “What kind of curse?”
“A blood curse. It goes back to my grandfather, they say. The great General Carlos Sanchez. He started all this, you know. When Mexico was nothing but a starving and forgotten third-world country. He saw an opportunity to use his power and prestige to run drugs into America. As early as the 1960s, those hippies and flower children were smoking my grandfather’s pot. And worse.”
“Of course, he was not the only one. Others saw the opportunity too. One of those was Jose Media. Grandfather had him killed. His three young sons, too. Only his wife and baby daughter were left alive.”
“Mama says that was his mistake. The woman cursed our family. She promised all of our sons were destined to die in blood. Only a daughter could break the curse.”
Mercy watched as tears fell from his eyes as he gripped the old man’s hand so tightly that she feared there would be more bruises. “She buried her husband and sons. Then she took her baby girl and climbed to the top of the church’s bell tower. She jumped off with her daughter in her arms. Sealing the curse in their blood.”
“My uncle, Juan Carlos, Mama’s hermano, her brother, was the first. He was killed in a bloody drug war with other rivals. My grandfather wanted my Tio Manuel to leave the church. But he wouldn’t. He’s the village priest even now. There was no one else. Diego was just a boy. Papa was in America with your mother.”
“There was only Mama. My Abuelo was mad with grief. She cared for him as you are Papa. She gave orders in his name. Until Diego came of age. Our brother celebrated his twentieth birthday by wiping out the family of our uncle’s murderers. Except for the daughter. He married Anna. But they have no children.”
Mercy remembered seeing the woman once or twice walking in the gardens that this house shared with the larger one. While the woman was strikingly beautiful, there was something about Anna that frightened her. Sadness indeed, but something else as well. Some coldness that she could not put her finger on.
“Our brother Jose was the next one to die of the curse. He was killed in a raid with the federales and your DEA almost a decade ago. Before he could marry and father children.”
“Isn’t there another brother? That lives in Mexico City?”
His laughter was so loud that Mercy feared it would wake the sleeping man. “Martin? He is muxe. You would say, transgender. She will have no children.”
He sighed so heavily it seemed to shake the whole bed. “That leaves only me now. I guess I should be happy. To finally be of some use to Mama. Maybe I would be. Constanza is a good girl. I like her even. But I don’t love her. I can’t. Not when I love someone else.”
“But marry her, I must. Not only is it Mama’s only remaining hope of the granddaughter’s she believes will break the curse and save my life, Diego’s, Martin’s, and our family line, but it will unite our cartel with our rivals.”
Once more, Mercy was without words. She felt the young man’s pain but was as helpless to do anything about it as she was to slow the sands of time that were running out for their father and for her and Will. Nonetheless, she had to ask, “Is there anything I can do?”
At first, Roberto just shook his head. He watched the rise and fall of the old man’s chest for several minutes. “Maybe there is, big sister. You look tired.”
Mercy was not sure how to answer. Was it some trap? Had Diego or their mother sent him? “I’m managing,” though it would only get more problematic in the days and weeks ahead.
“Couldn’t you use someone to help out?”
“There are night nurses.”
“Sure, but I mean, help you out. It can’t be easy. Doing all this on your own?”
“I know what our brother said, but leave this to me, okay?”
Mercy nodded her head as the older woman, one of those night nurses, finally slipped into the room.
Roberto nodded to the woman and gave her instructions in Spanish. Mercy was too tired and confused by the conversation to pay much attention as she gathered her notebook and the pancho that Will had bought her from the market.
The young man took it from her hand and wrapped it around her shoulders. “Let me give you a ride back to the village. I need to speak to your man anyway.”
That knot in her stomach tightened further. This could not be good news. She could almost see those sands spilling faster through that hourglass. They were almost out of time.
***On the road north in Mexico***
Will studied the man that sat in the driver’s seat beside him. Roberto Ignacio Carlos Sanchez-Garcia. He tried to reconcile what he remembered from the agency’s dossier with the young man that had held the gun on him and Mercy that first day. And with the one who had saved their lives. If his visions were to be trusted, and he was coming to believe they were.
He knew that the man was several years younger than Mercy, not yet thirty. No one knew why Consuela Sanchez-Garcia had reconciled with her husband, at least long enough to conceive another son. Perhaps it was her father’s nagging on a woman’s place or her uncle the priest?
But what was abundantly clear, not just from those files but his time here observing the family, the woman had never forgiven her husband for his indiscretions or their youngest son. Though Roberto was given every advantage in life.
In his early years, he had been tutored by his Tio Manuel, the local priest. By the time he was ten, he had been shipped to boarding school in England. He returned a few years later to the prestigious Exeter School, where he excelled academically and in sports. He had gone to Harvard, where he studied business with a minor in the classics. He had stayed for an MBA.
What the fuck was a man like that doing holding an AK-47? Especially on his half-sister. And why, with all those degrees in business, was he nothing more than Diego’s lackey? It made no sense. No more than why this man did not take his education and get a legitimate job.
“Where are we going?”
The man had shown up with Mercy hours before. After dropping her at the hovel they had been calling home for over a month, he had motioned for Will to get into the SUV. They had driven away. And been driving ever since.
Will was not one-hundred percent, but he was reasonably sure they were heading northeast. Back towards the US. But the borders had been closed for days now. Surprisingly by the Mexican rather than the US government. An attempt to stop the spread of the deadly virus ravaging his country and most of the world.
Of course, their presence in Torreon proved there were always other ways across the border. The question was – why take him back to the US? Were they going to turn him over to the agency? Unlikely. Perhaps their pal Kerr. That would make more sense.
Was this the test of loyalty that Diego said would come? Blood in, blood out? He could only pray that would not necessitate the killing of an innocent. Of course, the most obvious was to murder him. Take him far enough away from Torreon that his death could not be easily linked with the Garcias.
But if that were the case, it did not end as Diego and Roberto thought. His dreams proved that. Or he hoped they did.
Without a word, the man turned the vehicle off the highway. They drove another twenty minutes, perhaps half an hour in silence. Will’s heart raced faster and faster as he began to recognize snippets of the landscape from his dreams, or he thought he did.
He was almost sure of it when Roberto pulled the car over to the side of a small dirt road. Nothing but sand, scrubs, and cacti. It was the stand of Mexican Lime cacti that confirmed it. The circle that they formed was identical to the ones in those dreams.
Will could not stop the smile that spread across his face as the man pointed a Baretta at him. “Get out.”
He was more than happy to comply. Will felt nothing but relief rather than fear. The waiting was over. Now things would begin to move once more. However, he was not wholly sure where or how. That was the thing with those damned dreams; they only told him the next step. But he had to trust that whatever this was, it would be the advantage that he needed to get them out of here. Especially now.
With his head held high, he turned his back on Roberto and walked to stand in the shadows of the largest cacti that was taller than either of them and perhaps close to a hundred years old. Its children encircled it at varying heights from waist high to several only inches tall.
“Why did you bring me here?”
“To talk.” For the one holding the gun, Roberto seemed incredibly nervous. He kept looking around as if expecting someone to join them, or perhaps they were followed.
“So talk.” Will shrugged, uncertain what came before or after the vision he had been having for weeks. He stood almost precisely in this spot. His skin burned. He was covered in dirt, bruises, and scratches. And this man lay bloodied in the soil at his feet. While Will held the gun to his head. But how they got that way or whether he pulled that trigger, he had no idea. Only allowing Fate to play her hand would tell that.
The man shook his head and motioned with the gun. “This was a dumb idea. Get back in the car. I’ll find another way. I don’t care what she says. I can’t trust you.”
She? Who was she? He knew that Mercy had seen little of her brothers. Only a weekly obligatory visit from Consuela. At least until today. Had Mercy said something to him? Convinced him to help them somehow? He wished that they had the chance to speak before he left. But he had not dared more than a brief kiss and an I love you before going with the man.
“I don’t know what your sister told you, but you can trust us….”
The man shook his head as he began pacing back and forth in front of the car. “Not my sister. I dare not speak to her. Or you.”
Roberto stopped, the gun clenched in his hand as he ran his fingers through his hair, seeming almost to pull at it. “Fuck! If there were more time. But there isn’t. I have to make sure she will be safe.”
He turned and stared at Will as if taking his measure. Dark eyes traveled from the top of his head down to his boots and back up again. Until their eyes locked. “I don’t have any choice. Time is running out. And you’re the only one I can trust to keep her safe.”
“Her? If not your sister, then who? Who do you want me to keep safe?”
Will was not prepared for the following words from the man’s lips, “Bebe. Your cousin.”
“My cousin? You know my cousin? How?” After weeks of living in the village without sight of Bebe, either there or at the family compound, Will had begun to lose faith. His greatest fear was that he had blindly placed Mercy in danger on a wild goose chase. But now – this? “Where is she? Where is Bebe?”
“In the prostibulo. Practically right next to you.”
“No, that’s not possible. I’ve been looking for her. Surely if she were so close, I would have seen her.”
“She has hidden. She saw you that first night when I brought you and Mercy there. She asked me who you were. I told her.”
“Why? Why wouldn’t she reveal herself to me? I know that Diego is watching, but surely there has been some opportunity, some chance that she could have risked speaking with me.”
“Bebe does not want to go back.”
“No! What? Your brother has whored her. How can she possibly want….”
“She and I….”
Will did not even allow him to finish the sentence. He could not. It disgusted him too much. Bebe was a child. Barely sixteen now. She had not even been thirteen when… He threw himself at the other man, knocking him off balance until they both rolled and tousled in the rocky sand.
He was like a man possessed. Beating the man, landing blow after blow to his torso and head. Oh, Roberto Garcia landed more than a few of his own, but Will seemed impervious to the pain, consumed as he was with righteous anger and hatred. It was bad enough to know that Diego Garcia had kidnap and sold his cousin. But this man’s betrayal seemed worse somehow. How could such an educated man… with a child?
Whether it was only a couple of minutes or an hour, Will was too crazed to know. But in the end, it was exactly as the dream foretold. He stood over the man with Roberto’s gun pointed at his head.
Roberto’s face was bloodied, but through swollen eyes, he looked up at him. “I love her. If you kill me now, you might as well kill her and my sister too. I am your only hope to get them out of here.”
Bile rose in his throat. He wanted to deny it. He desired nothing more than to end this man’s life and betrayal of all that was decent. To pull the trigger. But he could not. He had seen enough to know that Roberto spoke the truth. As much as it disgusted him. This pervert, this deviant, this pedophile was their only hope of survival.
“Why? Why would you help us? If you love her so much as you say? If she doesn’t want to leave? Though, I can’t see how that is possible. Why?”
“Because I see now that I can’t keep my promise to her.”
“I told her that we would be together. That I would marry her.”
“Marry a child? She was twelve fucking years old, you god damned sick son of a bitch.”
The man shook his head in denial, “No, we didn’t. I wouldn’t. It wasn’t like that. She was fifteen the first time I visited her.”
“Fifteen? And you were what? Twenty-six? Twenty-seven?” Roberto nodded his head at the accusation. “And that makes it all so much better? She was fifteen,” Will screamed in anger and pain as he raised the gun.
But he lowered it a moment later. He could not do it. Not if he had any hope of getting the three of them out of this hell. He dropped the gun and fell to his knees. Rocks cut into them, but he embraced the pain. It was so much better than what ripped his heart, mind, and soul apart.
Roberto would not meet his eyes as he began to speak. “I know you won’t understand this. Perhaps you can’t. But you are judging me by your Western standards. Do you know what a quinceañera is?”
Will nodded his head though the man did not see it as Roberto stared straight ahead into the desert. “For most girls today, it is symbolic. But it was not always that way. Once, it truly did signify the end of childhood and her transition into womanhood. And it is not just Mexico. Around the world, fifteen and sixteen-year-olds marry. Hell, even in your country, few girls are virgins by that age.”
Will spit at the man’s feet. “That does not make it right. And you know that. And don’t give me that Western world bullshit. You are more Western, better educated than I am.”
At last, the man looked him in the eye, “Yes, yes, I am. And do you know what all that fancy education taught me? That we are all the same. Do you think that my brother or grandfather is one bit more ruthless than your corporations’ CEOs? Do you think our hands more bloody?”
“What is the difference between my brother’s brothels sexualizing teen girls and those thousands and millions of videos of American girls shaking their almost naked asses and tits for TitToc? Both are prostitution.”
“They are not.” Will’s fist tightened at his side.
“Oh, the arrogance of your American superiority. It is so damned easy to judge the rest of the fucking world but not to look at your own failings?”
He wanted to deny the veracity of the man’s words. Indeed there were differences. But the truth was that the other disgusted him too. The sexualization and dehumanization of women of all ages in music videos, social media, and selling everything from cars to breakfast cereal was prostitution of sorts. It was, as this man said, only a matter of degrees.
And chuckled as he realized that this was his turn under that spotlight. Was he all that different than James Travis Tyler? A good man that could not afford to look his hypocrisy and prejudice too closely in the eye.
What would it serve either of them to argue semantics now? He would never agree with or forgive this man any part he had in Bebe’s degradation. Even if the look in those eyes said that Roberto Garcia did love her. Perhaps as much as he loved Mercy. That would never make it right to him. Still, the man was right – they needed his help.
“So, what do we do?”
Roberto held out his hand, “Right now, you have to trust me. Trust me that I will do whatever it takes to get you, my sister, and Bebe out of here.”
“And if I do? What then?”
“Then, we cross the border and kidnap another little girl for my brother.”