Part 12 – Wednesday’s Blues

***Somewhere on Highway 59 north of Houston and South of Nacogdoches***

Will couldn’t believe he was doing this? He looked over at the man next to him. Roberto Garcia was not his favorite person. His involvement with Bebe would be reason enough to hate him. But this latest was…

The truth was this was not Roberto’s idea. This was Diego. And the man next to him was motivated just as much by survival and necessity as he was. “How much further?”

This time they had traveled the major roads. Actually, they had been on Highway 59 since Laredo, stopping only for gas and whatever drinks and food were readily available. They had passed through Houston a bit after sunrise. The morning commute had just started, and that had slowed them down. But they had left the city behind well over an hour ago.

“According to the GPS, it’s less than an hour.”

Will felt the muscles in his throat tighten. He did not like this. It went against everything he ever stood for. He almost laughed at the thought of ‘blood in, blood out.’ Killing an innocent man might have been easier than this.

“Trust me, I don’t like this any better than you. I’ve never been in favor of….”

“Kidnapping young girls? Selling them into prostitution? But you don’t have a problem screwing my cousin?” Will fisted his hands at his side. It would be all too easy to wrap his hands around the man’s throat and be done with it. He had made that decision – to give his own life for hers – once.

Then he had met her – his Mercy. And everything changed. Still, if it was just his life for revenge against this man, and in some small measure, his family, it might be worth it. But he knew that giving in to that rage and anger meant sacrificing Mercy’s life and Bebe’s. That he could not do.

But could he do what they wanted? What this man asked of him? Even for the woman he loved and his cousin? Sadly, he had already answered that question. When he lowered that gun and got back in this vehicle with a man he hated, he had committed to the worst thing he had ever done.

“I promise, man. You have my word. Whatever it takes, I will find a way to get you and those women back across the border safely.”

“They aren’t women. Except for your sister, of course. But BeBe and Callie are kids. Little girls. And all your self-satisfying justifications in the world won’t change that.”

The man took his eyes off the road for a moment and turned towards him. “You know we are not going to agree on where to draw that line.” He went back to staring out the windshield at the road. The car was silent for a couple of moments.

“But I know what all that shit has done to Bebe. The mind fuck that it is for her. And I promise you I won’t let that happen to this kid.” He chuckled, “She seems like a really sweet kid, as you say. And anyone that can beat my ass at gaming had earned my respect.”

“So, that’s how you found them? Her gaming? I warned the old man that iPad had to be destroyed. That they could be traced through it.”

“It must have worked, too. She went dark for over a month. But she got into some argument with her mother and the guy they are staying with. She took her revenge by logging back into her old account.”

“Dammit, Callie, why did you have to do it?”

“Cause we all have our weaknesses. Hers is being at the top of that leaders’ board. Mine is Bebe. And yours is your moral superiority.” Before Will could argue that point, Roberto snuck another of those glances and smiled, “And my sister, of course.”

“So, what’s the plan? I am not killing anyone.” And he was not entirely sure that he could allow Roberto to either. But he would cross that bridge when they came to it.

“Callie has agreed to meet me. Well, the older boy that she thinks Diablo91 is. We arranged to meet near where they are staying, about an hour from Nacogdoches.”

“But she’s a smart kid, so when she sees a grown man, you’re afraid she will run.”

“Yeah, and I don’t want to have to hurt her. Obviously, Diego wants her mother alive. So he can question her. But, if I can avoid it, I don’t want to come up against the guy that took them in either. He’s some former Marine. But no matter how hard Diego has dug, he can’t figure out what his connection to McBride or them is.”

“So, that’s why I convinced my brother that this would be the best test of your loyalty. We know that you and she got close. I think if she sees you, well, I’m hoping she won’t turn and run. It would be best to avoid any confrontation, but if one comes, it’s good to have you around for backup.”

Will knew that the man was probably right about Callie being reassured by his presence. And as Roberto said, it was best to avoid any encounter with Cassie or this Marine. Because Will still did not want to hurt an innocent man, especially one that seemed honor-bound to protect innocents as this guy was. But as Roberto said, he would do whatever it took to make sure that Mercy, BeBe, and Callie got out of there. He just hoped his plan worked. That it would be enough.

“Okay, but we do this my way. And if you touch her, I swear I will kill you myself.”

***Garcia hacienda outside of Torreon, Mexico***

Mercy sat beneath the shade of some ancient gnarled tree. She was not sure what it was, and since coming here, she had been cut off from any access to the internet. Diego had made sure that they were completely isolated. She missed her tablet and the hundreds of books on it. Books were not all that available in the village either, especially in English.

But she had managed to purchase several notebooks. She did not dare journal her thoughts and feelings as she had since she was old enough to read or write. She could not risk those falling into Diego’s hands. But she had completed the rough draft of two novels and was well into the third. It was not like she had much else to do other than try to shove food in her ‘father’s’ mouth and wipe his ass several times a day. It was impossible to carry on any meaningful conversation with Ignacio Garcia.

And until last night, the only other people she had seen beside the night nurses, who did not speak to her, were Consuela, the priest, and that supposed doctor. That woman wanted no part of conversation with her. The priest has seemed friendly enough, but she was not the religious type. And there was something utterly cringe-worthy about the emaciated older man in his dark clothes who came with all those bottles of elixirs that were supposed to help. At least to kill orange trees.

If last night’s surprise visit with her younger brother was not enough, today had been full of surprises. After a restless night filled more with worry about Will than sleep, she had dragged her butt out of bed into the shower. Without the elixir of the gods, it was more challenging to get going each morning. The idea of going without coffee for over a year or more was daunting. She had a new respect for Laura. But some things had to be. Her hand rested lightly over her flat abdomen.

Of course, she could not be sure. Home pregnancy tests were another thing sorely missing from the little shop in the village. Still, she was usually pretty regular, and she was over two weeks late. Combined with the tenderness and sensitivity in her breasts and occasional nausea that seemed to overcome her any time of day, not just the mornings, she was reasonably sure.

Today was worse than usual, though. Perhaps it was worry about Will? That was undoubtedly a massive part of it. But today’s surprise, though pleasant, might also be contributing to her upset tummy.

After weeks of thinking that perhaps this had been a wild goose chase, this morning, as she walked out of their apartment, she had been greeted by a young light-skinned black woman. Her senses were instantly heightened. She matched the description that Will had given Mercy, but it had been over three years since he had seen his cousin. Bebe would have grown and changed. He had wondered if even he would recognize her.

But whether she was Will’s cousin or not, this was the first person, other than waitresses in the café, who had approached her since they arrived. And when the girl spoke to her in English, she had almost wanted to throw her arms around her. Not that her Spanish was not nearly perfect, it was. But just speaking her native language to anyone other than Will or last night with Roberto was a thrill.

The young woman had told her that she would be helping out with Iggy from now on. Mercy had only half-believed Roberto last night when he said he would convince Diego, but it seemed he somehow had. She certainly was not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. The girl had turned and begun walking towards the estate without saying anything more. It had taken Mercy a moment to finish locking the door and catch up with her.

“I’m Mercy, by the way.”

The girl looked at the hand she held out and then stared around them, looking directly back at the cantina. Whatever she had seen, she had continued to walk on for a couple more moments in silence. That only raised Mercy’s hopes – and fears.

Just as her excitement was about to overcome all common sense, the young woman turned once again and looked behind them. Whatever she saw must have reassured her because she was half-smiling when she turned back to face Mercy. “Yes, I’m Bebe. Thank god that Roberto has arranged for me to get out of there for a bit.”

Mercy did not dare jump up and down with the excitement that she felt inside her, just in case they were being watched from afar. “Oh, god, I’m so glad to find you. Will will be so relieved. We came here to find you and bring you home. Though, I don’t know yet how we will manage that.”

Her following words floored Mercy and pulled the rug out from under her. That was why when her father went down for a nap, she had left Will’s cousin to watch him and escaped for just a few minutes. She needed to collect her thoughts and process what the girl had said. How could Bebe possibly not want to escape? To remain her where her body was sold over and over again? Where she was….

But before she could even begin to unravel the complexities of that one, another woman approached her. Mercy had seen her walking in this garden almost every day. But even if Mercy had the time for idle chat, there was just something about the woman that made her uneasy. An overwhelming sense of sadness, indeed, but there was something more profound. Some intangible that Mercy just could not put her finger on about Diego’s wife.

“I don’t mean to disturb you, but may I join you?”

If this day got any weirder, Mercy was sure that she would hurl the beans, rice, and tortilla that she had eaten earlier.  

***Chad’s ranch in East Texas***

Grace paused as she cinched the saddle on Inferno. This was probably a bad idea. She had heard all those horror stories. She wasn’t stupid. But she was tired of having her whole fucking life controlled by the adults. Especially her mother, and especially now.

So, she finished buckling the saddle and climbed on her friend’s back. Inferno was her ace in the hole, so to speak. She knew how fast he could go, especially across the wooded areas where a car could not travel. He would easily outpace anyone on foot.

No, she had thought this out. Besides, she had all those self-defense moves that Chad had taught her. She had even remembered to put her small pocket knife in her boot, just in case. She had this. She would be fine. And if anything did happen, Inferno would run straight back to the barn and alert Chad that something was wrong.

It was almost lunchtime. Grace had done her morning studies and chores. Taking Inferno for a quick run before lunch was the perfect excuse. It also meant she had a pretext for leaving quickly if she got any weird vibes off the kid.  

There weren’t many details on Diablo91’s profile, but that did not mean anything. She did not make hers public either. It was just asking for trouble to put that stuff out there for anyone to see. All she knew was that he was from Mexico but happened to be passing through Texas to visit some college. That probably meant he was quite a bit older than she was.

But this wasn’t that kind of thing. She was not all that interested in boys, especially the macho type who’d use the screen name ‘the devil.’She had seen first hand the mess that relationships could cause for women, especially if you got into them too young like her mother had.

What her Mom had ever seen in Gerald McBride was beyond her? Oh, sure, there was the money thing. But Cassie just never seemed to care that much about it. She hadn’t even been that worried when she found out they would lose the house and all the stuff that went with it. Well, other than her horse Romeo, and making sure that they would have somewhere to go and not just be tossed out on the street. Grace could get that.

What she had never figured out was where Chad came into this whole thing. Neither of them would give her much of an answer when she asked those questions. And her mother had seemed as genuinely shocked as she was the day that Gerald had dumped them on the man.

But that had not stopped Chad and her mother from picking up where they left off, it seemed. No, she had loads of questions, and they were not offering any explanations. Especially the most important one of all, was Chad her birth father?

She could see the posh black SUV pulled off to the side of the road just up ahead. It was pretty nice, not all that different than the rental one they had driven that day. Diablo’s family must have loads of money, but that was not as comforting as it once might have been. All the kids at her school proved that being wealthy did not make you a nice person. Sometimes it seemed the opposite, in fact.

She halted Inferno just out of sight. “So, what do you think, boy?”

It was more than just the way that the horse pawed at the pine needles and packed red earth beneath his hooves. She had always been able to sense what animals felt. It was weird, and she had no idea why or how. But for as long as she could remember, she had just known when they were sick or scared or anxious.

And Inferno was making his unease perfectly clear. Grace considered giving him free rein, allowing him to do as he wished and head back to the barn. She was on the verge of doing just that when the passenger door opened. Something was definitely wrong.

Will? What was he doing here? Was something up with the case? What did it even matter anymore, now that Gerald was dead? Maybe that was it? Perhaps he came to tell them that it was alright now? But how did he know where to find them? And why wouldn’t he have sought out her mother? Besides, why the subterfuge with the whole Diable91 thing?

But there was only one way to get the answers to any of those questions. That was to reveal herself to the man. She might think twice about that with anyone else. But this was Will. He was the only one that had ever been kind to her. Heck, he had almost treated her like an adult. Taken the time to speak with her, listen to her struggles, and even share a bit about his own life.

Okay, so the fact that the dude was smoking hot had absolutely nothing to do with it. Sure, she had always figured in another decade or so, when she had finished college, and knew what she wanted to do with her life. When she was ready to start dating and interested in guys. Well, Will was the kind of guy that she hoped to find.

Who knows if he still hadn’t met anyone? Okay, so he would be old by then. And twenty years? Heck, that was almost as big an age difference as her Mom and Gerald. Was that part of the problem for them? It all came back to that. All those questions and no answers. The lies just kept mounting up. And now, she had added a few more of her own.

“Will, what are you doing here? Are you Diablo91?”

But before her friend could answer, another man got out of the driver’s side door. And though he was almost certainly of Mexican descent, he was not a boy, way beyond even his late teen years. She felt Inferno stiffen beneath her thighs. She allowed him to half turn back towards the house.

“Please, Callie, just give me a couple of minutes to explain.”

It was Will that spoke. The other guy had come around and leaned against the side of the car. Grace was pretty sure that the bulge beneath his coat was a weapon. Maybe he was another agent? But that would not explain the unease that she felt in the bit of her stomach or from Inferno. Heck, even Will seemed tense.

But she knew he had risked so much to help her family. Sure, she was pretty confident that Gerald had paid those agents off. It was just that Will had not seemed the type to sell out like that. Maybe he needed the money to pay for his grandmother’s funeral? Or a private investigator to look for his cousin? If she went back to the house now, she might never know. Maybe for once, an adult would respect her enough to answer her questions?

“Two minutes, Will.”

***Garcia compound near Torreon, Mexico***

Mercy was not sure what to say to the woman. So, she merely waved her hand to the round stone wall upon which she sat. The woman gave what might pass as a smile as she sat down.

Anna Garcia was hauntingly beautiful, especially for a woman her age. Only this close could Mercy see a few strands of pure white at the temples. Otherwise, her long straight black hair parted to the side and fell to about mid-back. While not model thin, the woman was svelte with enough curves in the right places.

Yeah, she could see what Diego saw in her. Except for those cold, lifeless eyes that seemed to suck the light and life from everything near her. Mercy could not stop the shiver.

“I am Anna, your brother’s wife,” the woman spoke softly in Spanish.

“I know, and obviously, you know who I am as well.”

“Si, I had hoped to speak to you before, but you were always so busy with Ignacio. Is the girl helpful?”

Mercy frowned in surprise that the woman seemed to know so much about her and the situation. Her half-brother did not seem the type to confide in a wife. She nodded her head slowly and mumbled, “Si.”

“I am glad. I’m sure it has not been easy all these weeks, having full responsibility for a man you do not even remember. When Roberto brought the subject up over dinner last night, I did all that I could to convince Diego it was a good idea.” There was bitterness in her laugh as Anna continued, “I suppose I don’t need to tell you that Consuela was against the idea.”

“I can imagine.”

“Si, it is not just her hatred for you and your family, of course. She equally dislikes the girl. She fears her control over Roberto.”

The woman glanced towards the main house and lowered her voice, “Neither of you is safe from the woman. It is just a matter of time before she tries to get rid of you both.”

Anna turned back to face her. What she saw in the depths of those dark eyes frightened Mercy even more than the lifelessness had. It was hatred. Pure, unadulterated hatred.

“Do not eat or drink anything she offers you.”

Mercy thought about that orange tree. “What do you know?”

“Nothing specific. But I know that the man she consults is, how do you say it, limpias.”

“A white witch? But isn’t that supposed to be good?”

“Most, yes. But not all are. That man is evil, darkness. Still, he claims to be a cleanser. He performs rituals to clean evil spirits. But that same darkness is where he draws his power.”

Mercy remembered the weird altar that she had noticed when they first arrived. The candles, photos, and flowers were arranged perfectly, more so than even the altar in Brad’s church. But who kept such things in their homes? Not that she would put anything past that woman.

Then there were the ‘medicines’ that the man brought, supposedly to make Ignacio better or more comfortable at least. But look what it had done to the orange tree. Was it really that far off to believe that Consuela would use them to kill her. But why Bebe? Weren’t they making money off… She did not even want to think about it.

“Curandero? That’s just superstition….”

“Do not be so quick to dismiss what you do not understand. There is always more to this world than what we see. But even if you cannot believe that, know this, there are plants and herbs going back hundreds and thousands of years. Before modern medicine, some of them are even manufactured into modern medicines. But these plants can do powerful things. Stop pain. Heal. Birth control. Abortions. And yes, even death. If you know the right combinations. That man does.”

Though Mercy knew it was hypocritical for her to dismiss this woman’s beliefs, after all she had seen. Hell, after her own experiences and this new sense she seemed to possess. A sense that Anna Garcia set off.

“How do you know so much about it?”

“Let’s just say that if I did not have knowledge of my own, Consuela would have killed me, too. But that is not what I want to speak with you about. I need your help, and in exchange, I will help you and your man escape when the time is right. The girl, too, if she wants to go.”

“Why? Why would you do that for us? Why would you risk your marriage, if not your life, to help strangers? I can get the whole evil mother-in-law thing, but why would you betray your husband?”

The striking woman seemed to transform before Mercy’s eyes into some caricature of a madwoman. Her face contorted, and that hatred in her eyes amplified. She spat on the ground at her feet, “My husband, bah! I wish he had killed me that day alongside my father and brothers. I begged him to, you know. It would have been more merciful.”

“Can you imagine what it is like to be sixteen, protected your whole life, and have your home invaded by murderers and rapists? To watch them execute your Papa and older brothers? Maybe I could have survived that, maybe. But when they took me and my ten-year-old brother Ernesto into the gardens. That was the first time I saw your brother.”

Mercy had been wrong. Those dark eyes were not lifeless and cold. They were perhaps the most expressive she had ever seen. Filled first with hatred and then with a pain that she could not even comprehend, that made her want to look away, but she was powerless to do so as the older woman continued the story.

“Do you know the first words I ever heard out of the man’s mouth?”

Mercy noticed that she never referred to her brother as Diego but ‘that man.’ Then again, she understood that. She could not bring herself to think of him as her half-brother. Any more than she could call Ignacio Garcia, her father. And while she had felt the man’s abandonment and stigma of bastardy all her life, that was nothing compared to the depths of trauma this woman was describing.

“He looked at his men and asked why they had not killed Ernesto, too. When one man said he was just a little boy, that man raised his gun and shot him in the head. Right in front of us. Then he turned the gun on my brother. I begged and pleaded, but….”

The woman suddenly seemed to realize how much she had revealed. Though those dark pools swam with unshed tears, Anna said no more as she dropped her head, staring at her hands. That was when Mercy noticed the deep scars. On her wrists. Her chest tightened as she attempted to fathom even a bit of that level of heartache.

“Then, to be forced to marry that man. For him to touch you.” Anna spoke so quietly that Mercy strained to hear her words. But there was no denying the way the woman’s whole body convulsed. The garden was silent. It seemed not even the birds dared to sing in the presence of such sorrow.

Mercy, too, was lost in her worst fears. What would they do if they could not escape? Worse, what if something happened to Will? What if he was already dead? She felt panic and pile rising. She barely managed to turn her head away from the woman as she spilled the contents of her stomach at the foot of that ancient tree like an offering to long-forgotten gods.

*** Grandfather’s ranch***

Laura paced the front porch of the cabin. She gently jostled a cranky Chloe. Her daughter seemed to be as unsettled as she was. And like her mother, seemingly without reason. It was much too soon for teething, and colic was supposed to be an evening thing, wasn’t it? She would have to consult one of Ryan’s many baby books.

Or were they Rex’s? Both men seemed obsessed with the damned things. It seemed to be the only thing that the two men talked about anymore. Did you read what Spock said about…? Have you seen the latest research on co-sleeping? It might have been adorable at first. Two such macho men totally and completely absorbed in all things baby. But…

“Lunch will be ready soon. I thought I’d call the guys in so they could wash up.”

Laura turned to face Jaycee, “Sure.”

“Is she still fussy?”

“Yeah, I don’t know what’s wrong with her.” Laura fought back the tears. It was not just Chloe. What was wrong with her? Things had been going well. After Jaycee and Rex’s trip to Houston and the deal her friend had negotiated with the federal prosecutor, there had been no reason to fear reprisals. At least from the government.

Of course, they still could not prove who McBride was working with. So, there was still danger from that end. To make matters worse, they had not heard anything from Mercy. Maybe that was the problem? Worry about her sister? Or maybe all this waiting for something to happen? Something they had no control over. No way of knowing when, where, or what was going to happen. Maybe that was it?

“Here, let me take her for a bit.” Jaycee held out her arms with a smile.

Laura passed her daughter to the woman who had become almost another sister over the past few weeks. That should be no surprise. Jaycee was only a bit older than she was. They shared a passion for the law and their daughters. And for their men, who were more like brothers than cousins themselves.

As Chloe settled, her little head resting on Jaycee’s shoulder and her legs dangling near the woman’s baby bump, Laura’s eyes were drawn to the men. They were practicing with their bows by the barn. That was their other obsession, preparing for a confrontation that had not come.

Laura barely stifled a moan at the sight of Ryan. He had stripped off his shirt once again. It was an Indian summer day, after all. Jaycee noticed and turned towards the men.

The bows they used were nothing like the ones from old westerns. Their weapons were almost as long as Jaycee’s daughter, Angel. And much more complicated than a curved piece of wood and some string.

Laura shifted from side to side as Ryan’s back and shoulder muscles flexed when he drew back on the string. Her nipples hardened inside her padded nursing bra. Then she felt it, the unmistakable tingling that accompanied the let-down reflex. “Shit.”

Her friend chuckled softly as she patted Chloe’s back. “You spend much longer looking at your man, and you’re going to need to change your panties as well as your bra and shirt.”

“Thanks for stating the obvious.” She had no good reason for being grouchy with Jaycee, and she knew it. It was just this feeling. This crawl out of her skin tightness that had been growing for weeks now. “I’m sorry. It’s not your fault.”

“I know it is not my place but woman to woman; you might consider jumping that man’s bones.”

Laura could not stop the groan that escaped her throat. It sounded desperate and almost primal even to her. “I swear another week and a half is going to kill me.”

Sure, they had been fooling around for weeks. Lately, it had become more reciprocal. It had all begun while she was sucking Ryan off once more. This time the tingle between her legs had been too much to resist. She had slipped her fingers inside her panties. Both of them had gone off like rockets then.

From there, Ryan had taken charge. First, he had begged and cajoled her into removing her panties so he could watch. But that had not been enough. Eventually, he had wanted to be the one touching her. Once the discharge from the birth had stopped, the man had spent loads of time with his head buried between her thighs.

But it was not enough. She desperately wanted him inside of her. She felt the frustration boiling over, even at just the thought of it. She had dreamt and relived that one night over and over again. Was it really that good? Okay, probably. After all, just the fooling around they had been doing was still better than most of the sex she had with other men.

“You know, you don’t necessarily have to wait the full six weeks?”

“But isn’t that dangerous? I mean, what about injections or….”

“It depends on the woman. As long as you stop if it isn’t comfortable. Listen to your body.” Her friend wore a cheeky grin, “And it seems to be saying, go for it. This little darling seems to be ready for a nap. How about I take Rex, Grandfather, and Angel on a picnic? You’ll have the whole house to yourselves for a couple of hours.”

Laura was so relieved that she threw her arms around the other woman. “Thank you, Jaycee.”

“What are friends for?” She passed a sleeping Chloe Back to Laura with a smile. “I’ll send Ryan in.”

***Chad’s ranch in East Texas***

Will knew he had to get this right. There was no doubt in his mind that they would leave this place with Callie. One way or the other. And he knew that his was best. Not just for her, but everyone. Even if his conscience was still seeking another way out of this mess. But if there was one, he could not see it.

“Do you remember I told you about my cousin?” He got straight to the point. Because while Callie had only agreed to two minutes, the truth was they could not afford even that. If someone came down this practically deserted road, well, they did not need any witnesses.

She nodded her head. Who had allowed her to dye her hair in such an outrageous way? “Yeah, Bebe, right?”

“Yes, well, I found her.”

“That’s great.” Callie looked every bit the sweet innocent kid she was.

There had to be another way. Why couldn’t he see it? He knew he was selfish, but dammit it, their lives depended on this girl. Not merely his, but Mercy and Bebe, perhaps, if his gut was right, even his child’s. There was so much riding on this.

“But I need your help to free her.”

“My help? What can I do?”

“Remember I said that she was kidnapped on the way to school.”

She nodded again, “But the police didn’t believe you?”

“Right. But there was one clue in her file. After… Well, after I was fired for letting your father go, I followed it to a small town a bit west of here. To a corrupt sheriff. It’s a long story, and we don’t have the time now to go into it. I promise I will explain it all on the way.”

Will stopped, he inhaled deeply, and he sought one last time for that way. Some way out of this mess. Some path that would allow him to protect Mercy and Bebe without involving this sweet kid. But he came up with nothing.

“The man that your father was working with had her kidnapped and taken to Mexico.” He did not want to strip away this girl’s innocence with the rest of the story.

“My father? Gerald? But they never figured out who he was working with.”

“I did. When I followed that lead to Mexico.”

“That’s great. But why do you need me? Surely you can get the agency to raid the place and get your cousin out of there? Stop the man at the top, too.”

“No, Callie. They fired me. And besides, Diego Garcia has men inside the agency. They would just warn him about any raid. Then he’d kill them and destroy any evidence.”

“Okay, but I still don’t understand what I can do?”

“The man wants his money.”

“Gerald said it was all gone. That there wasn’t any. And even if there was, I certainly don’t know where it is.”

“Yeah, I know that, kiddo. But Diego believes that your mother does. He sent us here to bring you back. So your mother will follow you there.”

“Kidnap me? So he can use me against my mother? Hurt her? Someone like that is not going to just let us go. Even if we knew where the money was and gave it to him, and I’m sure Mama doesn’t know anything.”

Tears welled in those expressive green eyes of hers, “Why, Will? Were you working for this man all along? Did you become my friend so that you could betray us?”

“No, sweetie, I swear. I never wanted you involved in this. I only helped your father because of you. Because you deserved to be safe and away from all that mess. I wouldn’t even take the money he offered me.”

He started to pace. Come on, god, you gave Abraham that ram trapped in the bushes. Why don’t you come through for me now? Still, there was no answer. Maybe in his bad choices, his grandparent’s god had forsaken him? But why punish this girl? She certainly did not deserve it.

Will noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. Roberto reached for the gun he had concealed beneath his jacket as he took a step away from the car. Callie noticed him too.

“Who is he, Will?”

He was out of time, and he knew it. “That’s Roberto Garcia, Diego’s younger brother. He brought me here to convince you to come willingly. I’m sorry, Callie, but whether you want to or not, you have to come with us. It is not just Bebe’s life that depends on it, but the woman I love as well. I’m so sorry.”

She nodded, “Just one question, Will. How did you find us? Did Gerald tell you where he was taking us? Have you known all along? Do those other men, the bad guys you worked with, know too?”

Will started to shake his head, but it was Roberto who spoke up. “Afraid you can’t blame that one on your father or Will. That one is all on you, ElizaThornberry.”

Will stepped forward just in time to catch the girl as she fell. Her eyes were wide as she stared up at him, “It’s all my fault then? Whatever happens to my mother, it’s my fault? They warned me. Even Gerald did. Why didn’t I listen?”

“Shhh, it’ll be okay, Callie. No matter what happens, I promise you I will do whatever it takes to ensure that you, your mother, Bebe, and Mercy get out of there safely. You have my word on it.”

She shook her head as the tears spilled down her cheeks, “Grace, they call me Grace now.”

He smiled as he helped her into the back seat, “Grace? I like it. It suits you much better than Calypso or Callie. But I mean it, Grace, whatever it takes, you have my word on it. I will get you and Cassie out of there safely.”

He looked up to see Roberto scanning the road in both directions. Even if it meant that he laid down his own life. That he never had anything more of the sweet life and love with Mercy than these past few weeks. After all, that was more than he had ever hoped for, probably more than he deserved, too. Yes, even if he never saw, held, or watched the baby, he was almost certain grew inside the woman he loved. His own little girl. Even if he had to sacrifice all that, he would – for this girl. He had willingly laid down his future and life for her once, and he knew he would again.

***Agartha, Sedona, AZ***

Stacey walked barefoot down the rocky path from their cabin to Shangrila. Though it was well into fall now, even at this elevation, it was still relatively warm. At least during the day. But the nights were always another matter. Which was why she was so glad that she had someone to cuddle up with when it got too chilly.

She stepped around a pointy rock with a smile. Just that idea would have been unimaginable a few short weeks ago. But she was coming almost to need Reb’s tender hugs, those gentle squeezes of her hand, and those reverent forehead kisses. She was beginning to think she was ready for more.

No, not sex. Like he said, sex, or at least intercourse, may never be part of what they shared. And surprisingly, both of them seemed okay with that. But kisses. She was still intrigued by what it might be to kiss the man. In fact, her curiosity grew each day.

But it seemed they had time. She would have thought that would bother her. All this time on her hands. No work. Neither her daughters nor granddaughters to fuss over. They had not heard from Mercy since the text message informing them that they had made it to Torreon. Yes, she was concerned, but something told her that she would sense it if anything bad happened.

And Laura was safely ensconced on some ranch somewhere with Ryan and Chloe. While she missed seeing the changes in her newest granddaughter, Laura had risked sending a couple of photos and videos. She replayed those when she could.

There was not much word from Brad and Elena. They had made it to their sister church in Belize, alright. But they had gotten stuck there. There were no direct flights to Africa. And without visas and passports, this pilgrimage seemed doomed. Then as if by some miracle, an acquaintance had connected them with someone who could forge such documents. For a price, of course. Not that that was a problem.

The last she had heard, a couple of weeks ago, was that they were in London and were booking flights to South Africa. While there, Brad was hoping to meet the religious and world leader that had been his hero since he was a boy. The old friend from his seminary that they were staying with in England had some connections with the great man. Even Elena and Rehab were doing well. Honestly, her ordinarily shy and reserved middle child seemed to have burst like a butterfly from her chrysalis.

Stacey’s laughter danced off the rocks and trees around her. She had spoken with them. The burner phone was usually turned off, of course. No cellphones, tablets, or computers was not only one of Agartha’s rules but honestly, this far out and high up reception sucked. But they had sent the office phone number to everyone. It had been good to hear their voices.

No, things were going well. She had not felt this kind of peace or safety in… Well, never. Maybe part of that had to do with the therapy she receiving? When they had come back from their retreat and training exercises in the desert, Celeste, Cellie, as she insisted Stacey call her, had approached them about speaking with a counselor. She had been reluctant. She did not need a shrink.

But Reb had encouraged her to at least give it a try. Of course, he got caught in his own trap when Barry had insisted that he set an example. Reb did not want to talk about any of it with either his mother or Indie. But the older woman who had trained them both in working with survivors of rape, assault, and domestic violence had retired to Agartha a few months before. She agreed to work with Reb as a special favor to Cellie.

Now, they both met with counselors twice a week. Of course, Reb did not attend the group session that she was on her way to now. While Indie and Cellie were coming to terms with their prejudices regarding rape as a feminist issue, everyone agreed that it might be too disconcerting for the other women to have a man in the group. Of course, Nancy, Reb’s therapist, had encouraged him to substitute an online forum for men in its place. It was an exception to the no electronics rule.

No, if anything, things were just about perfect. Then she walked into the conference room. The same one where she and Reb first faced down his family. And the world shifted beneath her feet. What was she doing here? Stacey’s first reaction was to run. Not just from this room but from Agartha itself.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” smiled Indie. “We have a new member of the group today.”

“I see.” Her eyes never left the woman standing across the room, chatting to Cellie.

Had he sent her? Had he somehow discovered where she was? Sent the woman to spy on her. To betray her. And she did feel betrayed. Not just by the woman that she had known her whole life. But by them. By Reb’s family, his mother and sister. Why had they let her in?

Indie’s hand on her shoulder tried to draw her further into the room. But Stacey shook her head. Maybe flight was not the best response to this latest threat, though? But she needed to shake off the ‘freeze’ that she was in now. No, she was going to meet this newest challenge head-on. As she always had. But to do that, maybe she needed information?

“I’ll just sit over here today.”

The corner of the room closest to the door was usually reserved for those newbies like that woman. A place to safely observe without being expected to participate in the sharing circle. Stacey had spent her first couple of weeks there. After being included in that circle’s closeness, it felt strange to be relegated to it once more. But it was safer here.

Indie studied her face. Her hand rested on her overly distended abdomen. The woman still had several weeks to go. But with twins, that was unlikely. Now they were on the count down to thirty-five weeks, the point at which the local midwife felt it safe enough to attempt a homebirth. They were less than a week from that point. And it showed in the awkward way the woman moved. “Okay, if you’re sure. But you can join the circle at any point if you change your mind.”

Stacey nodded as she dropped into a bean bag by the door, and Indie waddled across the room to join the others.

The next hour was going to be interesting. To say the least.

***Chad’s Ranch in East Texas***

Rose stared out the kitchen window. It seemed she spent an inordinate amount of time doing that these days. Maybe it helped her to think? She certainly had lots of that to do. While things were good with Chad, she felt the chasm growing wider every day with her daughter. Not that she blamed Grace. It was all the lies.

Of course, she knew that all of that was not her fault. Even she had not known the truth for almost fifteen years. But it was her choice to perpetuate those deceptions that Gerald had begun. Chad had certainly urged her to reveal the truth to Grace.

She thought she was doing the right thing. That the truth would only make things more difficult on a young woman already mourning the death of the man she thought was her father. But maybe she was wrong? Perhaps the truth would free Grace of the past as it had her?

She just did not know what to do. How to tell your teenager that her father is not really her father? There was certainly no chapter in any of the parenting books on this one. But the longer she waited, the harder it seemed. And the angrier her daughter got. The past couple of days, Grace had barely spoken to her at all.

Rose stirred the pot of vegetable soup and pulled the iron skillet of cornbread from the oven. She wiped her hand on the new apron she had sewn from a pair of old jeans and edged in red gingham trim. She frowned as she watched Chad cross the yard from the barn towards the house. She thought Grace was doing chores with him.

“Something smells good.”

Everything she made seemed to ‘smell good’ to this man. Still, it was nice to know her efforts were appreciated. “Go wash up. Lunch is ready. Where’s Grace? I thought she was with you.”

Chad came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, nuzzling her neck. “She took Inferno out for a quick run. I’m sure she’ll be back any moment.”

Rose was about to nod her ascent when she saw the red stallion gallop towards the barn. Alone.

Chad must have noticed him too, “What the fuck?”

Her sense of foreboding only rose when she saw Chad reach for the old shotgun he kept above the door. His words confirmed her worse fears, “Something is wrong. That horse would not throw that girl.”

Before he could reach the door, the old yellow phone that hung on the wall rang. Rose was glad that Chad had not left the house since neither she nor Grace dared to answer it.

“Hello. Grace, where the hell are you? You’ve got us worried.”

Rose was about to sigh with relief until she realized that neither she nor her daughter had access to cell phones. She and Chad had discussed it, but the risks of giving their daughter another piece of technology were far greater than any benefits. Although unlikely, what if Grace called one of her friends back in Houston.

Chad frowned as he passed the phone to her, “She says she needs to talk to you.”

She took the phone like the precious lifeline it was. “Grace, where are you? How did you get access to a phone?”

“Mom, I’m sorry. This is all my fault.” Rose heard the gentle sobs of her child. She wanted to comfort her, tell her that it did not matter. That everything would be alright. But she did not know that. She had no idea where her daughter was or who had her. But there was no doubt this was not good.

“Calm down, sweetie. Where are you? Who are you with?”

The cries got louder. Rose felt helpless. Powerless when her daughter needed her the most. She would have sunk to the floor as her knees gave way, but Chad’s arm was suddenly around her, holding her up.

The voice that came on the phone was vaguely familiar. “Cassie, this is Will. Agent Caleb Williams, do you remember me?”

Relief washed over her. At least her daughter was in federal custody and not the hands of whoever Gerald had been working with. It was not ideal, but she would do whatever the government wanted, make whatever deal, and get her daughter back. “Yes, Agent Williams, you were one of the men who helped us escape.”

“That’s right. Listen, I don’t have long to talk. I need you to trust me, Mrs. McBride.”

She cringed. Was it because he used that name or perhaps the tone of his voice that frightened her? “I’ll do whatever the government wants, Agent Williams. Just tell me where to meet you.”

His following words shattered her world. “I don’t work for the government anymore.”

This time not even Chad’s strong arms could keep her standing. All he could manage was to soften her landing as they sank to the floor together. Those arms never leaving her was the only reassurance she had left.

“Please. Please, don’t hurt her. I’ll do whatever you want. I promise, just don’t hurt my daughter.”

“She is safe, Cassie. I promise you I’ll do everything I can to keep her safe. You have my word on that.”

Rose searched her memories. She had been so lost in despair and survival mode that she had not paid that much attention to the federal agents that guarded them, especially once they had released Gerald from jail. But she was reasonably sure Agent Williams was the young black man who had befriended her daughter. That would make sense since she knew Grace would not go with just anyone.

“What do you want then?”

“It isn’t me, Mrs. McBride. It’s the man your husband worked with. Diego Garcia. Do you recognize that name?”

“No, Agent Williams. As I told J. T. Tyler, Gerald was not the type of man to share his business dealings with me. Why does this man want my daughter?”

“It isn’t Callie he wants. It’s you, Mrs. McBride. Garcia believes that you know where Gerald hid his money.”

“But I don’t. Gerald swore to me that there was no money. That it was all gone. Bad investments. Lavish lifestyle. I swear if there was any money, he took that secret to his grave.”

“I believe you. But Diego Garcia won’t. He intends to use Callie to draw you to him. Then when he gets you… Well, let’s just say he is not a good man.”

“I don’t understand, Agent Williams. If you feel like that, then why are you helping him? Why did you take my daughter?”

“Because I had no other choice. Because Garcia kidnapped my cousin almost three years ago. I can’t go into details. Not with Callie here, but let’s just say it can’t be far off what you imagine. And now, he’s got the woman I love too. I’m not telling you this to excuse what I’ve done. Just so that you realize that I would not have taken her if there was any other way. I’m sorry.”

The man’s explanation only increased her fears and anxiety. There was only one reason that she could think of for kidnapping young women off the street. And now that man would have her child. No matter what this man said about protecting Grace, she knew there was little that any of them could do against such a powerful man.

But she had no choice but to try, “What do you want me to do? Where do I go?”

“I’ll text the coordinates to the man you’re staying with when we hang up. I won’t lie to you, Mrs. McBride. Diego Garcia is not the type of man to leave witnesses. I think we both know that. But I meant what I said, I will find some way of getting you, Callie, my cousin, and Mercy out of there. No matter what.”

Some bell rang in her head, but Rose was too frightened to think clearly. All she could do was imagine the worst. Once more, it came back to that question she felt she had gotten past – how did it come to this?

“I’ll be there as quickly as I can, Agent Williams. But I’m holding you to your word. You keep my daughter safe. You hear me.”

“I promise. Oh, and tell that man of yours, not to be seen. I know there is no point in telling him not to come with you. I know I wouldn’t listen if it were Mercy. And honestly, I can use whatever help I can find, especially as trained as he is. But he has to lay low, not let them know he is coming. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, I understand. We’ll be there as soon as we can. You have my word on it. And tell Grace that we love her. That her Mama and fath… That Chad and I are coming to get her.”

“I will, and god be with you.”

It seemed a bizarre thing for the man to say. She tried once more to put the pieces together, to figure out the man’s story. He said that this Diego had his cousin and the woman he loved, but how? Mercy? She felt like she ought to know that name somehow, but where had she heard it?

“Who was it? What did they say?” Chad turned her in his arms. His face looked as worried and desperate as she felt. That was both reassuring and more frightening.

“One of the agents that helped us escape. He’s working with the man that Gerald was messed up with. But he doesn’t have a choice. Diego Garcia, that’s the man’s name, has his cousin and girlfriend or whatever, I don’t know. He wants us to go to Mexico somewhere. He said he would send coordinates. He said to tell you not to let them know you are with me.”

It all came pouring out. Rose knew that none of it would make sense to him. But they would have time to straighten all that out on the way. Mexico was almost a ten-hour drive from here. Maybe she would figure out those missing pieces on the way.

Chad’s phone pinged. He drew it from his pocket and looked at it. “Okay, I have the coordinates. You go pack. Whatever you need and Grace too. Just the basics, okay?”

“And what are you going to do?”

“I’m loading my guns into the truck and making a phone call.”

“A phone call?”

“Reb said to call them if we needed anything. There ain’t many people I trust. Especially with you and Grace. But he’s one. And we need all the help we can get on this one.”

And that piece dropped into place. “Yes, call Reb and Stacey, too. Her daughter, Mercy, is involved in this somehow.”

She could see the question on his face, but she did not have the answer or the time to try to figure it out. So, she climbed out of his lap and went up the stairs. She collected stuff almost by rote, and somehow or the other, she found herself doing as Agent Caleb Williams had asked – praying to whatever was out. For her daughter’s safety. The life that she had dared to dream of these past weeks. And the lives of those other women that were somehow connected to this mess.

***Agartha***

Reb pulled what he was reasonably certain was a weed from the kitchen garden next to their cabin. In addition to the dozens of no-till gardens scattered about Agartha that supplied almost all of the food they consumed here, each private dwelling had a couple of raised beds along its South-facing wall and dozens of containers spread around. Though his mother had always insisted on keeping this space for him, Reb had never bothered to pay much attention to the damned things, even on his rare visits.

But Stacey had thrown herself into the damned thing. Turned out that she had always had a garden. It was mere survival when she had three girls to feed and not much money left over from her paychecks to buy groceries. Reb felt the familiar tightening in his chest at the mere thought of all that the woman had been through. But he swore – no more. If he was sticking around, then things were going to be different from now on.

He knew next to nothing about growing anything. He never stayed in one place long enough for seeds to mature. Working in their garden had begun as a way to spend more time with her. Something they could do together. A chance to talk as they worked, to learn more about her. Perhaps even a bit of a distraction from the monotony. She was comfortable here, which meant that she let down her walls. She tended to answer questions more honestly, almost without thinking.

It was more than that, though. Reb buried his fingers deep in the soil. He felt the dark, rich loam crumble with the invasion. He recognized more than that. He sensed the power – the magnificence of nature. Mother Earth strummed from the tips of his fingers, up his arms, and spread through his body until it seemed to explode through the top of his head towards the weakening sun that was not yet halfway through her journey across the sky.

He shook his head; he’d have to be more careful. If he kept this shit up, he would become as hookey as the rest of his family. Or maybe he always was? The dreams were back. After their time in the desert, he had been blessed with a respite. For close to a month now, he had slept next to her in utter peace. No nightmares of the friends he had lost or the men he had killed. There were no haunting memories where he woke unable to breathe with the grit of that sand in his nose, mouth, and soul. No prophetic portents that he spent every waking moment trying to decipher.

Until the past couple of nights. It began the same. Her  – covered in blood and soot against a backdrop of flames that would do Hollywood proud should it ever decide to make Dante’s Inferno into a movie. That much he had seen since he came to Sebida all those months ago. Nothing new there.

But this time, it went deeper. Stacey was looking directly at him, her eyes seeming to plead for something. But he had no idea what. There was another woman as well. He could not see her face. But he knew she was not one of Stacey’s girls. Not only did he sense it, but her hair was a honey blond. Stacey’s daughters were either dark auburn like their mother or deeper browns like the man who had created them.

It made no sense. Then again, when had his dreams ever. At least not until they happened. Sometimes he recognized it quickly enough to save at least some of his friends. Jack was one of those. But others, he was powerless to do more than watch his nightmares play out in reality. Those were the worst. Questioning himself, wondering if he missed something, if he should have known sooner, done more.

“That’s a carrot, not a weed, son.”

“Shit,” Reb looked down at the tiny white root that was not even as big as his pinkie nail. He quickly shoved it back into the earth, hoping and even praying that he had not disturbed it too much. Otherwise, he might answer to her.

“Don’t worry. One thing I have learned in all these years on this earth is that life is tenacious. I have watched plants that I swore were killed by a late frost grow and bear fruit.” His father chuckled, and it echoed off the canyon just a few yards away.

“Hell, I have done that same thing. Pulled up the wrong plant and tossed it in the compost pile. Only to come back weeks later to find it thriving. That tree of yours should prove the will to hang on to life, no matter how thin or rocky the soil you’re planted in. That woman of yours, too. I like her, son. She’s a remarkable person.”

“I know you, Dad. You didn’t come out here to talk about the garden.”

“No, I didn’t. I came for two reasons. The first is to give you this message that came for you. It don’t make much sense to me. But it is from that friend of yours, Chad. That’s the instructor from your Sniper training, ain’t it?”

Reb nodded as he held out his hand and took a scrap of paper. So, it began. He could sense it. Whatever was on that paper would put an end to the last few weeks of peace.

“And the other is to tell you how incredibly proud I am of you. I know it ain’t easy facing old demons, but these past few weeks, I’ve watched a change in you, son. Whatever is in that note, I want you to know something. We have always told you that you are welcome here. And we’ve always kept this place available for you.”

“But I realized something these past few days. What we’ve never told you, never made clear, is that we need you here. That you are the missing piece of our puzzle, son. That your voice needs to be heard just as much as your sister’s.”

Reb shook his head as he looked up at his father. “You know that isn’t how things work around here. Their goddess…”

“The goddess is more than just some feminist mumbo-jumbo, Reb. She lives in all of us. Male as well as female. Dig your hands deep into that earth and tell me you don’t feel her power, too.”

Hadn’t he thought almost the same thing moments before? Was that why he wanted to avoid his father’s question?

But the man was having none of it. Though Reb knew how difficult it had become for him, Barry knelt beside him on the hard-packed and rocky ground. He fitted actions to words, wrapping gnarled, calloused, and bruised hands around Reb’s and plunging them into the rich humus. “Close your eyes, son. Turn off your mind. All those thoughts that distract you. And just feel. Feel the power of Mother Earth.”

As much as he wanted to argue, Reb respected the man too much. He had spent most of his life trying to emulate Barry, to earn his respect and approval. What was a couple of minutes to satisfy his father and make the old man happy?

He did not expect anything spectacular to happen. He wasn’t like them. He had always been the odd man out. He had never really believed all that goddess hoo-wee. But to make his father happy, he’d do it.

It was not instant. At first, Reb felt – nothing. Other than that moistness crumbling at his touch as it had before. The silence was daunting. All those old fears and anger began to race through his mind.

Perhaps he stiffened, or maybe his father knew things deeper than he had given him credit for. But whatever the reason, those hands wrapped tighter about his and plunged deeper. “Let it go, son. Let it all go. Into her. She’s big enough and deep enough to take all that pain.”

There was no denying or explaining what he felt then. Warmth from the cold dark earth. Some light seemed to blossom in his chest. It amplified a thousand times that inkling he had touched before. And for the first time, perhaps ever, certainly the first time Reb could remember, all he felt was peace. All he heard was silence.

He was connected. To this man that he had idolized. He felt his father’s love flowing over him and through him. And he knew, in his gut, that he had always had what he had spent a lifetime trying to earn. Barry had always been proud of him, every bit as much as he loved him. The disappointment that he had felt was not from his father or even his mother but from within.

He had judged himself and others against the world’s standard. All those battles he had fought were not against the bullies but against their words in his own head that he had come to believe as true. He had run from this place and these people because he feared being different.

But he was. He always had been. That was why he had never found what he was looking for out there. That was why he had never fit. Maybe that was even why they had singled him out?

In that connection to this man and that dirt, he felt some fire ignite in his belly. Then he realized that light had always been there. Within him. But he had hidden it. Thrown dirt on it to snuff it out. But the ember remained. It had never gone out.

Reb could almost feel the wind blowing, caressing his skin, fanning that flame. Then he felt them. Tears ran down his face. He knew that they dropped onto that loam, watering it and bringing forth life.

Earth, air, fire, and water. His mother’s goddess. No, the goddess. She had been waiting for him. All this time. Always there. Ready to embrace Her child. That was why he felt the need for solitude. Why he went off alone for long periods. But he was too stubborn to see that.

He was home. This place that he had spent so long running from. These people that had embarrassed him were his family. They loved him. And yes, he loved them. He always had. And his father was right. He belonged here.

No matter what was in that note. No matter what Chad needed, he knew… he would return here. To Agartha. And She would welcome him back. And this time, he would take up his place.

Barry released his hands. Reb looked up into that weathered and wizened face. Those eyes shone with tears, too. “Didn’t you ever realize? This place is yours. You were the one that led us all here. You are the reason we stayed here.”

His father’s words were a floodgate springing open to a deluge of memories. He had run off, like most ten-year-old little boys, adventure called to him. That day he had gone further than before. Something had driven him deeper into the desert. They were to leave that evening. But he knew there was some treasure he must find first.

They were all tired and grumpy. Three adults, two children, in an old battered Volkswagen van for over three months. Looking for something they had yet to find. The big people had been arguing for days.

School was starting back home. Their lives were waiting. His mother’s tenure track position at the university. Their house. Stability. This journey was a waste of time and money. It was just a pipe dream. Finding some ‘home.’ Some unrealistic utopia.

So he had packed some bread, an apple, and his pocket knife in his little backpack. He had left a note for his parents. And before the sun even rose, he had taken off into the dry, red hills and rocks where they had camped for three days.

He was thirsty and cursing himself for not taking Barry’s old cantine with him as well. Then as if he had magically conjured it up, he saw that clear stream. Around it, everything was green against the reddish-brown backdrop. He bent and scooped handfuls of water, bringing them to his parched lips. He could feel the cool, refreshing water as it slid down his throat. He ate his meager lunch and drank more water.

Once his thirst was assuaged and his belly full, he had looked up at the cliff just across the stream. He had seen it. That ancient tree clung so desperately to that rocky ground. Its twisted branches stretched to the sky seemed like the welcoming arms of his mother when she came back from work.

He had crossed that tiny stream in only half a dozen steps. Though it was not deep, he had been careful to pick his way from rock to rock. His mother would not be happy if he got his sneakers wet. He had stood at the foot of that cliff. His hands shielded his eyes as he looked up.

It had seemed like a giant, insurmountable hurdle. Though it was easy enough for the man to climb the thirty feet or so to the top, that seemed like a mountain to that little boy. Somehow he had found the courage and a pathway to the top.

Reb could almost feel that same sense of pride as he reached the summit and looked out, surveying the landscape below. He could even see their camp in the distance, or he thought he could.

He watched the sun traveling across that clear blue sky, not so much as a white buff for as far as he could see. And it had seemed that he could see forever. He felt as if he tried hard enough, he could see all the way to the beach back home where they sometimes spent their Sunday afternoons.

The sun was at its peak. Blazing down on him. And now, with that full stomach, he felt tired. He sought shelter from the heat in those embracing arms of the tree. He must have fallen asleep.

That was the first time. The first dream. There was a woman. He could not see her face. But she was covered in blood. Her green robes were torn and dirty. Her red hair was like flames that swirled about her in the wind. He could hear great sobs pulled from the depths of her soul. Mournful. He remembered his mother’s stories of ancient banshees and sirens. That must be what they sounded like. Her pain called to him. He would defend her. That was his job. His purpose. He knew that now.

Then he was shaken awake. He looked up into the worried face of this man. And he had told him everything. With tears running unashamedly down that little boy’s cheeks, he had described it all. Barry had not said anything. Just that they ought to get back to camp. That they were packing up and would be leaving soon.

He cried harder. He begged and pleaded. They could not go. Didn’t he understand Reb needed to stay here? To protect and defend her. To keep the pretty woman safe. That was his duty. He had cried all the way back to camp, pleading with his father. When they arrived, his mother’s face shone with relief. She held open her arms, but he brushed past her, disappearing into the tiny tent he shared with his sister.

He heard them arguing again. He curled up in a ball in his sleeping bag. His greatest fear was that his family would divorce. He did not understand how that would work. Some of his friends’ parents had divorced. But how would that work in his family? Would Mike leave? Or Barry? Even his mother? What would become of him and Indie? His friends usually lived with one parent and visited the other, but they only had two parents. What happened when there were three?

He had cried and cried. He must have fallen back to sleep because when he woke again, it was dark. He was hungry, starving, actually. And that was what finally drove him from the safe cocoon of that tent. He was afraid that he would be in trouble since his pilgrimage had delayed their departure.

But everyone was sitting around the campfire, eating and laughing. His mother noticed him and motioned him into the circle. Over dinner, she had quizzed him about his odyssey. He had been reluctant at first. He had never had a dream quite like that. It seemed real. But she had drawn it out of him. All of them had listened. Listened with such reverence, it seemed.

When he finished his tale, his mother had looked across the fire at her husbands, first Mike and then Barry. “It looks like we stay then. That we have found our home.” She had turned back to him, her hand tenderly caressed his cheek, “Or more like she has revealed it to Rebel.”

His throat had been as tight that night around that campfire, the gentle breeze feeding its flames. His mother’s tears fell onto that rocky red dirt.

“How? How could I have forgotten?”

Barry squeezed his shoulders, his dry cackle echoing off those cliffs. “Because that woman overshadowed everything with her passions. And honestly, Mike and I never fully stood in our roles to balance her feminine energies. I’m sorry. I haven’t been a very good role model, and you, my son, have paid a high price for my mistakes.”

“No, no, that’s not true, Dad. You’ve always been….”

“Broken. But now isn’t the time for that truth, Reb. I need to get back to Shangrila, and you need to read that message. This time, though, remember your home needs you, too. You’re the one she called.”

He embraced his father, that note clutched in his hand. He wanted to stay. For the first time in so long that he could not remember, Reb wished to remain here. On Agartha. But he knew he could not. Not yet. Duty and friendship called.

And when he opened that piece of paper, he knew that everything, this whole game, had changed. It was time to end this.  

***Grandfather’s***

Ryan drew back the string of the crossbow. He was just about to release it.

“Hey, Laura needs you back at the house.”

He turned to see Jaycee wrapping herself around his cousin, the way that Grandfather’s old barn cat loved to twine about your leg. Except Rex did not mind, the way they usually did with Old Mother.

“Is everything alright?” He knew that Chloe had been fussy the past few days. He hoped their daughter was not coming down with anything. It was a real fear since they had not felt safe enough to have her seen by a pediatrician. And with this new virus taking hold, any parent would be concerned.

“Relax, my son. I am sure that whatever your woman needs, you will have.”

He stared from Jaycee to Grandfather to his cousin. He did not appreciate the knowing smiles on their faces as if he were the brunt of some inside joke.

Rex reached out and took the bow from his hands. “Just go see what she needs.”

“Yeah, I’m taking this bunch out for a picnic lunch,” Jaycee held up a wicker basket as her daughter bounced from foot to foot with glee.

“We’ll be gone at least a couple of hours,” Rex slapped him on the back.

Ryan considered probing deeper to find out what these people knew about the situation that he did not. But it would probably be easier to get his answers from the source. Besides, he had had just about enough of target practice and his cousin’s advice for the day. He turned and heading back to the old log cabin.

Even though he was sweaty, he headed straight to the bedroom they were sharing. Perhaps Laura needed him to take a fussy Chloe for a bit? She seemed to have recovered nicely from the birth, but he hated that they had not dared to contact her midwife.

Sure, he realized that women birthed babies for centuries before there were pediatricians or doctors. He knew too that around the world, many still did. But not his woman or his child. Damn, he hated the decisions they had been forced to make.

He pushed open the door as quietly as he could. The first thing he saw was a sleeping baby in her Mose’s basket. What he noticed next took his breath away and sent his cock into overdrive. Laura laid on their bed. Naked. One hand was kneading her fuller breast. If that was not enough, the other was buried between her legs.

“Fuck, woman. Are you trying to kill me?”

She half sat up. The hand that had been between her legs, hell, the finger that had massaged her clit, went to her lips, and he groaned. “Shh, don’t wake the baby.” Laura’s smile was even sexier than it had been in the pub that night.

“Let me get a shower….”

She shook her head, “No, we don’t know how long Chloe will stay asleep. I don’t want to waste a moment. Besides, I intend to get you nice and sweaty anyway.”

Ryan’s hand went to the button on his old fatigues. “I like the sound of that. Of course, I intend on getting you nice and wet with my tongue between those sweet thighs.” He reached out and brought her hand to his lips, suckling gently. His eyes never left hers.

“As nice as that is, I’m afraid that won’t fill the ache inside of me.”

“Soon, baby, soon, I will most definitely be happy to fill whatever and wherever you need filling.”

His mind and his cock both almost exploded as those dainty hands slipped inside his half-open pants and wrapped about him. “Not soon, Ryan. Now. I need you now. I want you to fuck me.”

He groaned so loudly that he looked over to the wicker basket, afraid he had awakened their daughter. “Laura, you are killing me now. You know how much I want that. But…”

“No butts. If you want me half as much as I need you, then shut up, counselor, and fuck me.”

He bent over and took her lips. Lips that had explored every bit of his body these past weeks. Lips that tasted of sweet innocence and dark passion. Heat exploded between them as it always seemed to. He got lost in it and the feel of her hand on his cock. She drew him forward until he rested on the bed beside her.

His hands found her breasts, and he groaned into her mouth as he felt the wetness seep around his fingers. Before he realized what was happening, Laura rolled him onto his back and rose over him. She broke the kiss as she leaned forward and began rubbing her nipples across his lips.

Ryan did not need to be asked twice. Over the past month since that first day in the shower, he had become addicted to her sweet milk. While he might not need the sustenance the way their child did, he was thrilled that the bounty was enough to share.

Her nipple slipped from his mouth, but her milk continued to spray, hitting Ryan in the nose and shocking him almost as much as the slick heat that Laura slowly lowered down his throbbing cock. His hands gripped her hips, and his mind warred with itself. Did he halt her movements or aid them?

When he glanced up, his heart stalled at her sheer beauty. Her head was thrown back, and those dark eyes closed, her lips parted slightly. The look on her face was half intense concentration, almost as if working on a legal brief, and part absolute ecstasy.

He searched for any sign of discomfort or pain but could not see any. The need to protect her weighed even more heavily than the physical demands of his body that screamed for him to shut the fuck up and just enjoy this moment. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”

Those dark eyes opened and stared into his as she shook her head. Her hair danced about her shoulders and face, “No.”

His fingers gripped her hips more tightly. Ryan tried to halt her movements, to keep her body from sinking further down his hard cock. “Laura, we should stop then….”

Her answer was to thrust her hips further down, to engulf his flesh completely. Ryan was powerless to stop the groan that welled up deep in his soul from escaping. Her next words were the sweetest he ever heard, “If you stop now, counselor, I’ll sue you for breach of contract.”

Laura leaned forward and captured his mouth in a soul-searing kiss. As her hips began a rhythm that he was powerless to fight. “Shut the fuck up and fuck me.”

“Oh, I intend on it, sweetheart.”

The way her inner muscles contracted around him curled Ryan’s toes. “You do that again, and this won’t last long.”

Laura slid her finger down where their bodies joined as she leaned forward and offered him her tits once more. “That might be for the best this first time. But first, suck my tits and fuck me deep until I come all over that delicious cock of yours.”

Ryan had been with one or two women who liked dirty talk, but Laura’s relatively mild words were the sweetest and kinkiest he had ever heard. How could he deny her anything? He lifted his hips and caught the tempo of their dance as he returned to sucking her sweet nectar.

He could tell she was close. Hell, he was too. Too close. So the sudden contraction of those muscles around his cock left him powerless to hold back. He felt like some stupid virgin kid unable to hold out. But at least the flood of fluids that sucked him deeper affirmed that he had seen to her pleasure first. Laura continued to ride him slowly, drawing out both their pleasures.

Ryan almost whimpered when she pulled back, and her nipple slipped from his mouth as she rolled to his side. “Damn, that might have been a quickie, counselor, but fuck, how can it be as good with you as I remembered?”

Her words stoked his ego, made him want to pound his chest, and yell like some Neanderthal. But they also affirmed his hopes. They would make it through this all – somehow. And when they did, together, they would build a better future. For Chloe, for themselves, and if they were incredibly blessed for any other children they had.

“That’s because someone once told me…nothing done in love can ever be wrong.” Ryan wrapped his arm around her shoulders and drew Laura tighter against him. “I love you, sweetheart. And I intend to spend the rest of our lives showing you that. And proving that each time, quickie or not, will be better than the last.”

***Wilson ranch, East TX***

Chad’s fingers trembled as he turned the combination lock on his grandfather’s old gun safe. It was his third attempt. Right now, he wished that he had changed it out for one of those newer things. But that was the least of his worries. When he turned the handle this time, it finally opened.

He did not bother trying to decide what to take. He emptied everything into the duffle bag that sat on the floor. He had never been a violent person by nature, but the Marines had trained him to be a killer. And for the first time in his life, he felt what he could only assume was blood lust.

He wanted to kill. Anyone and anything that came between him and his daughter. Beginning with whoever had Grace. Despite what Rose said and the one-sided conversation he had listened to, he could not understand how anyone, especially a federal agent, could do something like kidnap an innocent child.

His hands shook as he lifted his grandfather’s old double-barreled shotgun out of the gun safe. That was not true. Not totally. Wouldn’t he do the same to protect Grace and Rose? He wanted to believe that even then, he would find some other way to keep them safe. But if he couldn’t? He did not want to consider that too carefully.

He had already put in a call to the ‘hippie commune’ that Reb’s mother operated. He knew more about the man’s family than most people. He still could not understand how someone named Rebel Zappa Moonchild ended up enlisting in the Marines, but that would never justify what they had done to the kid.

He was sure that even he did not know the whole story. You didn’t get as fuck-up as Reb had been when he came to sharpshooter school, not just from being ‘roughed-up a bit.’ No, there was lots more to it than that. He had his suspicions, but that was all they were. He knew that even female Marines who reported that stuff often faced more retaliation than the perpetrators. Besides, that was almost twenty years ago. There was not much he could do about it now.

He did not bother carefully packing all the ammunition stacked on the shelf into the bag. He had a rough idea of how many rounds he had anyway. Instead, he just raked it into the sack and zipped it up. He needed to get back upstairs as quickly as he could. The reception down here was not the best, especially in the basement.

He had called Reb almost half-an-hour ago. He thought he had made it clear to the man who answered that this was an emergency. So, why hadn’t Reb called him back? What if… No, he refused to believe that his friend was messed up in all this. But still, Rose had said that woman’s daughter was involved in this somehow.

He took the stairs two at a time as his mind raced through scenarios, considered who he could call on for backup and what the hell they were going to do to get their daughter back. And he was determined that he would do whatever it took to get Grace and Rose to safety. Yes, whatever it took.

He had just hit the top step when the kitchen phone rang. Was it Grace again? Further demands? Reb? He raced the short distance far faster than he would have thought a man his age could. “Hello?”

“What’s up? My father said you called. That it was an emergency?”

Chad sighed with relief. He might not totally be sure he could trust Reb, not at this point. But as he had concluded before making that call, what other choice did he have? “They have Grace.”

“They? They, who?”

“I don’t fucking know. You tell me. Friend.” His heart was pounding so fast now that he could hear each beat. “Who the hell is Will? And what the hell does your woman’s daughter have to do with kidnapping mine?”

“Stacey’s daughter? Laura? You’re not making any sense, man.”

“No, not Laura. Mercy and some federal agent named Will. He helped McBride escape and bring my girls to me. But now he’s working with somebody named Diego Garcia. He’s the guy that McBride was laundering money for.”

It all came spilling out. “And he wants it back. He thinks Cassie, I mean Rose, knows where it is. So they’ve kidnapped Grace to force her to come to them. But we know it doesn’t work like that. Even if she did know, and she don’t, someone like that would never let them go.”

“Diego Garcia? Are you certain?”

“Yeah, that’s what Rose said. We haven’t had time to talk much. I just know what I overheard between her and this Will. But she said something about him not having any choice. That Garcia had his cousin and girlfriend or some such shit. I’m not sure I buy it, though.”

“Fuck. Are you sure that was what was said?”

“Yeah, pretty sure. But right now, I’m not even certain what my own fucking name is. All I know is some mean motherfuckers have my fourteen-year-old daughter and that they intend to use her as bait to draw the woman I love to them. So, excuse me if my fucking facts aren’t god damned straight.”

Chad’s fists clenched at his side as he listened to the tight laughter on the other end of the phone. “Fuck.”

He was about to place the receiver back in the cradle and come up with some other fucking idea, although he had no idea what, when he heard the yell, “Wait. Please, Chad. We can help.”

He debated hanging the phone up anyway. But the man would probably call right back. And he would answer it even knowing that because he could not take the chance, it was Grace or her kidnappers.

He shook his head, questioned his sanity, and brought it back to his ear. “This better be fucking good.”

“I’m sorry, Sarge. But I just heard you cuss more in a single breath than the two decades we have known one another.”

That observation brought a half-smile even to Chad’s lips, but the following words did not. “This is bigger than you realize, and we need some serious help.”

“No cops. No federal agents. I’m not entrusting their lives to bureaucrats. Besides, McBride was convinced there were leaks in the feds. That’s why he brought them to me.”

“There are. We don’t know how many, but we have a good idea of who a couple of them are.”

Chad was at the end of his rope, and his temper flared, “We? Who the fuck are we? And what the fuck have you told them about us? Is that how they found my family?”

“No, Chad, I swear, I haven’t told a soul about you or them or where you are. Hell, I betrayed them to you once already. Well, almost. Remember, I told you that Stacey’s oldest daughter used to work for McBride. She’s been hiding out with a former federal agent, the father of her kid.”

“This Will fellow?”

“No, last we heard, he was in Mexico with Stacey’s youngest daughter, Mercy. They were trying to go undercover with Garcia.”

“Well, fucking congratulations. It looks like they might have succeeded if he kidnapped my daughter. But I don’t get it. How? Garcia doesn’t sound like the type that just hires thugs off the street. What made them think they could get inside what I’m guessing is one of the cartels?”

“Because Diego Garcia is their half-brother. The oldest son of Stacey’s ex-husband by his first wife.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah, that about sums it up. Listen, man, I know that you aren’t sure if you can even trust me right now. I get that. But if you have any chance whatsoever of getting your little girl back and protecting her Mama, you need my help and theirs.”

“Like you say, how do I know I can trust you? Let alone them.”

“Because I haven’t betrayed your trust, have I?”

“Then, how the fuck did they find us?”

“That, I don’t know. But I promise it was not us. Look, you called me. That must mean something. Either you still trust me, or you’re desperate. Either way, I’m telling you, the only shot we have is to get their help.”

Chad closed his eyes. His head was beginning to pound in time with his heart. He did not need this right now. But Reb was right. His gut told him that he could trust his friend. And he was definitely desperate, no doubt about that one. What choice did he have?

“Alright, meet us in Laredo. I’ll text you where once we get there.”

“No, Laredo is too close to Garcia. He might have his people looking out for you. You know we would have eyes on it if it was us.”

Chad knew that Reb was right, “Okay, so where then? It’ll just be a waste of time for ya’ll to come here. And we can’t afford to take the risk of waiting around. Who knows what they’ll do to Grace if Rose doesn’t show up there on schedule.”

“You’re right. How about this? Laura and her man are hiding out somewhere west of you in the Hill Country, I think. Let me get in touch with them. And Jack. Remember my friend Jack from the Rangers? We need all the help we can get here. Let me call them. See if they know somewhere, we can meet up.”

“I need to talk to Stacey too. That’s why I asked if you were sure about them having Will’s girlfriend. That’s her youngest daughter, Mercy. We haven’t heard from them since they crossed over the border into Mexico over a month ago.”

“Well, you fucking have now. Yeah, I’m sure. Rose said that they had this Will’s cousin and girlfriend. That’s why he kidnapped my daughter.”

“His cousin, too?”

“Yeah, I think.”

“Fuck, man, we need to talk. But damn, I should have thought of this sooner, not on the phone. We can’t know who might be listening. Shit, I’ve been out of this too long.”

Chad had to chuckle at that, “Not nearly as long as me, my friend.”

“And that’s another reason we need help. Young blood.”

“Yeah, well, there’s something to be said for experience.”

“I got to go. I will text you a location as soon as I talk to them.” There was a pause. “Hang in there. I promise you these are good guys. And we’ll all do everything we can to get your little girl back.”

“I better go see how Rose is coming. I asked her to pack some stuff for her and Grace while I got my stuff ready.” He knew that Reb would have a pretty good guess what that ‘stuff’ was. “Talk soon.”

He hung up the phone and leaned his pounding head against the wall. He knew he could not afford long, but he just needed a moment to calm his turbulent mind. He had more questions than he had answers. More doubts than he knew what to do with.

He still was not one-hundred percent confident that he could trust his friend. Let alone these strangers that Reb wanted to bring into this mess. He wished there was someone who had his back. He frowned at the idea.

There was someone. But he did not know Trav that well. He was almost a decade younger and had just been a little kid during those summers he spent here with his grandparents. But the Bakers had been good neighbors to them and him. He had only gotten to know the man a few months ago after his Mama died. They had met at the diner. Of course, it had not taken them long to discover they shared something in common – the Corps. Oorah!

But he knew a bit of the man’s story. One damned thing about living in small towns was the gossip; everyone knew everyone else’s business. So, he learned how Trav had ‘lost it’ and took a knife to the Simpson boys. Not that Chad could blame him, those boys had run wild every since their mother got ill.

After that, Travis Baker had just disappeared. For three years. The rumor was that he had been homeless, another veteran who lived on the streets. But no one knew for sure. And Chad certainly had not felt it his place to ask the man about those years.

He was not sure that he could call the man a friend, more like a neighbor. And this was a helluva a lot more than helping to put up a new fence between the properties. But Reb said that they needed all the help they could get. And Chad knew Travis was well-trained.

He had to ask, at least. As Reb also said, he was desperate. He reached for the phone. Then he felt the warm hand on his shoulder. He half-turned and did his best imitation of a smile. “You ready to go, sweetheart?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

He could feel her trembling as he turned around and drew her entirely into his arms. Chad bowed his head and kissed the top of hers. He did not want her to see the tears that glistened in his eyes. He knew that she needed him to be strong now. For both of them. “We’ll bring her home. I promise.” And he meant it. Whatever it took, even his life.

Rose pulled back from his embrace, “I just want you to know that no matter what happens, these past weeks have been the best of my life.” Her fingers that were decidedly rougher from dishwashing and working in the garden, caressed his cheek. “I love you, Buford Wilson. I probably have since that first dance. I will until my dying breath. And if there is something out there, after this life, I will for all eternity.”

Chad did not like the finality of her words. Yeah, he was going to make that call. He had no other choice. Because he was determined to bring them back here. Safe. All of them. Because he wanted a lot more than a few measly weeks with this woman.

And it was about damned time that his little girl learned the truth. Grace was a Wilson through and through. Wilson women were strong. He sent up a silent plea to his grandmother, the other Grace, to watch over her namesake. Until he could.

Then he would spend the rest of his life making it all up to them. Those lost fifteen years. All those missed Christmases and birthdays. All those lonely nights. He would not fail them again.

He brushed the tears from her eye and kissed the top of her head again. He missed the blond, but the red looked good on her, too. Would she keep it when this was all over? And it would be over. He was not having any of this shit hanging over them for the rest of their lives.

He picked up the bag at his feet and grabbed the one from her hand, “I’ll get these loaded. You lock up, sweetheart.”

He had already checked that all the windows and front door were locked, but he needed the time for one more phone call before they hit the road. He did not like not knowing where they were heading precisely, but the Hill Country was over four hours from here. If he did not hear back from Reb by then, they’d head straight to Mexico. Hopefully, with one person, he could trust riding shotgun.

***Agartha***

Stacey wanted to get out of there as quickly as she could. Though she had noticed Cellie watching her a couple of times during the group therapy, she had chosen not to participate today. Whether that woman had seen or recognized her did not matter all that much. The truth was that she needed to get away for a bit. To think.

She had been naïve and judgmental. To assume that his wife was complacent or even a co-conspirator. The words she heard pour from the woman’s soul had shattered those assumptions and revealed her own guilt of indifference. What that woman and her girls had suffered at the man’s hands was every bit as bad, worse than anything she had endured. She could count her rapes.

To live with and be shackled by the unholy bonds of matrimony to that man. To be raped whenever he wanted or felt he deserved sex. Your life threatened if you ever dared to leave. Knowing that without your presence, there was no one to protect your children. Just as the man had made certain, there was no one there to protect his wife.

Stacey felt the bile rise in her throat as she raced down the path towards their cabin. She hoped that she made it before her self-loathing and pity exploded from her gut. She was startled and alarmed when she felt the hand on her shoulder. She assumed it was Indie or Cellie, coming to check up on her. Perhaps Reb.

She drew back from the touch as she had for twenty-seven years, five months, and three days. However, she realized that her reaction was less violent, and the fear gripped her gut into tight knots that were not quite as intense. Maybe all this therapy bullshit was not a waste of time after all.

When she swung around, she was startled to see the almost ghostly white face of the woman she had loathed for years. Wanda Kerr, or Skye as she was calling herself here. Stacey was not sure whether to hit out in anger or beg the woman’s forgiveness. So she remained silent. Let this woman take the lead.

“Please, please, don’t tell him where we are.”

The irony that this mother feared the same thing she had from the moment she stepped into that room and recognized her was not lost on Stacey. She shook her head, but still, words eluded her as the trembling woman gripped her tighter.

“Not for me. But for my girls. They are just beginning to heal.”

“How long have you been gone? He told everyone that you had gone back East to help out some friend who was dying of cancer.”

“What?” Wanda shook her blond head at the revelation. “No, I took the girls and left almost a year ago.”

Stacey choked on the memory of this woman’s story, how closely it resembled her own. But she had only to pick up a telephone to protect Laura from Iggy. This woman had to find an attorney who would take her case pro bono. A woman’s shelter would not be secure enough from the man who was the law not only in Sebida but also feared in much of the area. And convince a judge to issue a restraining order against that man, an officer of the law that he broke.

But she, of all people, understood the wrenching need to protect your children. Wasn’t that what she was doing here now? And she grudgingly respected this woman’s courage. But she had to be absolutely, positively sure Wanda was telling the truth. The lives of her daughters and granddaughters depended on it.

“Then where have you been? I mean, how did you manage to hide from him?”

The woman’s shoulders slumped, and she dropped her hands from Stacey’s arm. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t. Luck, I think.”

“My attorney, Jaycee, is passionate about helping women like me. She had contacts in this underground railroad for abused women and children. We knew that Earl would find some way to search all the shelters. Even if that wasn’t supposed to happen, so, that was never an option. But these were women, families, homes that no one knew about. Once you go into the network, well, not even Jaycee knows where I am now.”

That name rang some bell, but Stacey was not thinking clearly. “Jaycee?”

“Yeah, Jaycee Riley, well, Ranger now. She got remarried after her ex-husband died.” Wanda frowned, “Wait, didn’t the death of her ex, Sean, start all kinds of trouble at McBride Industries? Don’t your oldest daughter work for them?”

Stacey was reluctant. How much did she share with this woman? But didn’t Wanda’s trust in her demand at least some reciprocity? Stacey just nodded.

“It’s okay. I understand. Everyone always said I was a ‘stand by you man’ kind of woman. But sometimes you ain’t got no other choice. I’m sorry if I bothered you. I won’t again. Just please, one mother to another, don’t let anyone….”

Stacey knew what Wanda was going to say even as Reb appeared down the path. “We need to talk,” her heart raced when she recognized the long, thin plastic case he held in his hand. “I need to go.”

An alarm rose in her heart as well as her mind. She forgot the other woman was even there. “Go where? Why? When do we leave?”

“We don’t. You’re staying here where it is safe. I got a message from Chad. Someone has kidnapped Grace, and he asked for my help.” Something about the way that Reb would not meet her eyes told Stacey that there was more to it than that. She would question him more once they were on the road and away from this woman that she was still unsure of.

“I called Jack, and he’s going to round up the others up. I just have to convince Chad that he can trust them.”

“Oh, no, I’m going with you. Rose will need me. Another woman to lean on.”

“No, she won’t have time. They said that she was to come to Torreon. Alone.”

“Torreon?”

“Yeah, now you see. All the pieces are falling into place.” He reached his hand out for hers, “That’s why I need you here, sweetheart. Safe.”

“Bull shit. You know I can use a gun better than most men. And you know that if they are heading to Torreon, this involves my baby and that missing girl. I ain’t sitting here waiting for the big bad men to save the day. I have always taken care of what’s mine, and if you think that’s gonna change well….”

“Wait, did you say a girl was missing? Torreon? As in Mexico?” The other woman’s gripped her arm even tighter. Wanda’s face appeared even paler – if that was possible.

***Grandfather’s***

When she walked into the kitchen, Laura wore nothing but a smile and one of Ryan’s dirty shirts that she had found on the floor next to the bed. Once this was all over, they needed to have a long talk. Negotiate some things. She had put in her time cooking and cleaning for her sisters. She had no intention of doing so for a man.

She opened the refrigerator door and was peering inside for a snack. She had left Ryan and Chloe napping, but she was too hungry to sleep. It seemed even quickies with that man worked up a real appetite, and food was just the beginning of it.

She smiled as she noticed Jaycee had left a plate of sandwiches with a sticky note and smiley face. ‘Thought you might need something to keep up your energy.’

Laura was beginning to like having a friend. She had not had time for friendships in years. Besides her sisters, she had only ever had two what you could call friends. Jack and Jolene Monroe.

Jo, her little brother, and Mama lived in the trailer just down the dirt road from them. They were poor relations of the Monroes – the ruling family of Sebida. When Jo’s daddy had tired of her mother and divorced his first wife for his younger secretary, his lawyer made damned sure that his ex-wife got as little as possible. Even then, the man rarely paid court-ordered child support. That was what motivated her best friend in high school to become an attorney – money and power. Of course, she practically worshipped her older friend and had eventually followed in her footsteps.

The two women had even run into one another a few times. Once Stephen had got into a bit of a sticky situation when one of his personal assistants accused him of sexual harassment. Laura knew the woman was telling the truth, but it was her job to get Stephen and McBride Industries out of it anyway. Jo was one of the best corporate discrimination litigators, so she called in an old favor and got her friend to consult on the case.

She still felt guilty about the low settlement and non-disclosure agreement they had bullied the young woman into signing. But that was a different lifetime. Still, karma had a way of coming back to…

Her thoughts were interrupted by the ringing phone. She debated whether or not to answer it. But if she didn’t, then it would likely wake up Ryan and Chloe. Besides, she could just pretend to be Jaycee, right? She picked up the phone on the third ring, “J. Ranger, Esquire.”

“Laura, is that you?”

Her shoulders sagged when she realized it was Jack on the other end. “Yeah, Jaycee, Rex, and Grandfather have taken Angel on a picnic. Can I give them a message when they get back?”

“Shitpisscockcuntmotherfuckinsonsofbitches.”

Laura stifled a giggle. She had never figured out how Jack could get so many curse words out in a single breath. But she also knew that if he was ‘fuck, fuck, fuckity, fuck, fucking’ something was seriously wrong. “What is it, Jack?”

“I need to speak with Grandfather. Now. Reb just called me. Will has kidnapped McBride’s daughter.”

Her head spun, and she held onto the countertop. “Jack, none of that makes any sense. I thought Will was with Mercy in Torreon. And no one knows where Cassie and Callie McBride are. Mercy and Will don’t even have Reb’s number. How could they contact him?”

“It’s a long story, and I don’t want to tell it more than once. Is there any way you can reach them? I’ll try their cellphones, but reception on the ranch fucking sucks.”

She was about to answer him when Ryan walked into the kitchen, a bit bleary-eyed with a cranky Chloe on his bare shoulder. Even with all that was happening, she could not help but appreciate the sight of the man in nothing but his boxer briefs. “Who is that?” he frowned as he passed their daughter to her.

“Jack, something’s happened.” She could not get her daughter latched on to her breast and hold the phone simultaneously. She hit the speaker button and laid it on the counter as she sat down in a chair and lifted the shirt. “You’re on speaker, Jack. And Ryan is here.”

“Hey, buddy. Laura says that Grandfather and Rex are on some god-damned picnic. I need to talk to them as soon as possible. When will they be back?”

“Another hour, maybe,” Laura answered as Chloe latched on to her nipple and began to suckle. She winced at the sharp needle-like pain as her milk let down.

“Shitpisscock….”

“Okay, buddy, enough with the cussing. I don’t want my daughter’s first words to be fuck. What’s up?” Ryan reached for a sandwich on the plate next to the fridge as he spoke.

“I got a call from Reb a few minutes ago. I’m gonna kick his ass when I see him. What he had not told me was that he had a Marine buddy in East Texas that was hiding McBride’s wife and kid.”

“The agency has been looking for them for weeks.” Ryan’s words were garbled around the half-chewed sandwich. His daughter slurped loudly at the breast. Laura shook her head; it seemed table manners were an inherited trait. Maybe she should have considered that before. She just hoped politics was not.

“I don’t know the whole story, but the dude called Reb asking for his help. Because get this, Will has kidnapped McBride’s daughter.”

Ryan half-swallowed, half-chocked on the sandwich. “That doesn’t sound like Will.”

“He’s with my fucking sister,” Laura stared into those baby blues. She could appreciate the necessity of toning down the cussing as much as any parent, but sometimes that word was the only one that fit. And now was one of those, as Jack spoke again.

“That’s just it. According to Reb, and this is all second or third hand. Will said he had no other choice. Diego Garcia had his cousin and Mercy.”

“Fuck,” it was Ryan’s turn to cuss. Yeah, her daughter was doomed. She only hoped they could dismiss it as duck or something.

“Garcia kidnapped the girl to lure Cassie McBride to him. He wants his money.”

Laura shook her head as she spoke, “There’s no way. Even if there was any money left, Gerald McBride would not have shared that information with his wife. Hell, the woman was always so withdrawn I wondered if….”

“Yeah, I figured that. Men like McBride don’t share their confidences with….”

“With women, counselor?” Ryan had never betrayed the agency, but she had often wondered if the McBrides had indeed shared more of this mess with him as General Counsel than they had her.

“Okay, no time for fighting, kiddies. I need to get ahold of Grandfather A-S-fucking-P. Reb says Cassie McBride was given coordinates to go to. Alone. Of course, this Marine dude is with her. I don’t know. Anyway, Reb has convinced them to speak with us. That they need our help against Garcia. He wants us all to meet here cause he says we don’t know who might be watching the border.”

“He’s right about that. If the Garcia cartel has infiltrated the agency, they certainly have the Border Patrol as well. I can saddle up a horse and have them back here in less than half an hour.”

But before the words were out of Ryan’s mouth, Grandfather and Ryan’s cousin walked into the kitchen. She quickly pulled a very unhappy Chloe off her breast and tucked the shirt done to cover – well, every-fucking-thing. Had she just flashed Ryan’s cousin and the old man? She knew her cheeks were flaming.

“Do not worry about such things, child.” That shit still freaked her the-fuck-out. Grandfather and Rex turned towards Ryan and the phone, “Tell them all to come here. It is time.”

How he knew that Laura no longer even questioned as she ran for the privacy of their bedroom to finish nursing her child, get a shower, and put on some clothes. Before who knew who or what trouble showed up. It looked like the quiet of the past few weeks was broken. The question was – was that a good thing? Or a bad?

***On the road near the Texas-Mexico border***

Will stared across the front seat of the vehicle at his companion. The blue-white lights from the dash cast shadows on Roberto Garcia’s face. It was getting late, and they would cross into Mexico soon. Still, he knew better than to suggest they stop for the night. The man was under orders to bring Callie back as quickly as possible.

He looked between the seat. The young girl that he had sacrificed his career for was sleeping now. Or at least she appeared to be. They had not stopped since picking her up. Not really, just one quick break for gas and snacks. Diego had escorted her to the bathroom while Will pumped gas. How had he come to this? Kidnapping an innocent kid? One that he had sworn to protect.

But he knew the answer. Bebe and Mercy. He had looked for a way out. But there weren’t any. His only hope now was that this man meant what he said about helping them to escape. Even when Roberto Garcia was nothing more than a few facts in profile, Will had never understood the man. He did not make sense.

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“You have a fucking MBA from Harvard. You could have gotten a job with any Fortune 500 company. Why go back to dealing drugs, kidnapping kids, and pimping out little girls? Why be your brother’s lackey?” While he did not yell the words for fear of waking Callie, the anger was there nonetheless.

“Do you know how the Kennedys made their money?”

Will shook his head at the question, “What are you talking about?”

“Bootlegging, racketeering. Yet, two generations later, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was President of the United States. His brother came damned close. The family still holds a great deal of power. And it all began with illegally obtained wealth and power.”

“John Kennedy never kidnapped a kid or slept with a fifteen-year-old?”

“That we know of. He certainly fucked around with enough of them.” Roberto’s laugh irritated, more than usual.

Will wanted to wrap his hands around the guy’s throat and squeeze the last bit of life from him. But he knew he could not. If he did, then his cousin’s and Mercy’s lives would be forfeit. And the little girl in the back and her mother at the mercy of Diego Garcia. But, oh, did this man get under his skin.

He fought down the anger. The more information he had about the enemy, the better a plan he could make. “How do you expect to become President or whatever when Diego and your mother see you as nothing more than the dumb, expendable henchman?”

Roberto chuckled again, “Oh, yes, but in how many of those movies is it the henchman that betrays the mastermind?” He took his eyes from the road and turned to smile at Will, “Better they underestimate me.”

Will’s blood ran cold. He knew at that moment he could never truly trust this man. Hell, Diego Garcia had more honor, as warped as it was than his brother. “You’re going to betray your brother.” It was neither a statement nor a question.

“I don’t need to. His wife, god, Fate, whatever already has. And he and Mama are laying the opportunity I need right in my hands.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Rafael Dominguez. What do you know of the man?”

It might have been years since Will worked undercover vice for Houston PD, but he knew all the major players. “He’s one of your brother’s rivals. Dom has controlled the drug trafficking in Chihuahua almost as long as your family has along the Texas border.” He could not understand what that had to do with anything.

“Constanza is her father’s only child. He was older than Diego when she was born.”

Will frowned; this was new information. The DEA and everyone else, to his knowledge,  believed the man to be childless. There was loads of speculation and unrest about what would happen when the elderly man died. “But I thought….”

“Everyone does. Dom was smart. Smarter than most. He realized that his only child was his biggest weakness. So he sent her to a convent when she was little more than a baby.”

He was too stunned by this latest piece of information to say much, so Will merely listened. “What he did not count on was that the good sisters would turn his only child soft. As soft as my Tio Manuel or Martin. Connie hates what her father is, what he does. She can’t stand the idea. Hell, the girl prays almost constantly for her father’s sins.”

“Honestly, she doesn’t want this marriage any more than I once did. She never even knew who she was until a year ago when Dom dragged her kicking and screaming from the convent. Right before she took her final vows.”

“Rafael Dominguez’s only child wants to be a nun?”

That laugh still grated, “Yeah, go figure. But the old man is having none of it. She might not be the son he hoped for, but through her, he can make sure that his family will continue to hold power as he always has.”

“So, your family and his would merge? Through this marriage?”

“That’s what Mama and Diego think. But I have other plans. Connie and I. If the Kennedys can do it in your country, why can’t we here?”

“You’d turn the Dominguez cartel legitimate?”

Will hated that half-smile. In the dim dashboard lights, it looked as sinister as any villain from a B-rate super-hero movie. “At least in part. I know that my little experiment with Stephen McBride failed. That’s why big brother and Mama have me back to doing their dirty work. Punishment because my plan failed.”

“Your plan? You knew Stephen McBride?”

“Exeter. We went to school together. The three of us were best friends. Got into all kinds of trouble, not that anyone could ever prove it. But you know what they say, boys will be boys.”

He shook his head again as screams, pain, and blood filled his mind. He wanted to throw up. It took every bit of willpower inside of him not to. It was just snippets like a montage of grotesque crime scenes from a detective show. But it only confirmed one thing. This man was dangerous. Even more so than his brother. And despite the suave veneer, they could never trust him.

He glanced in the rearview mirror to Callie McBride wrapped in his jacket. And he had brought the kid into this mess. Her mother too. What the hell had he done? Now it was not just his cousin and Mercy’s lives that rested in his hands but theirs as well. He had no choice at this point. He had to play along with this man. But he knew….

***Agartha***

Reb turned as if noticing the other woman for the first time. “Yeah.” Who the hell was she? And what might she know about any of this?

“Reb, meet Wanda Kerr. The good sheriff’s wife.” Stacey answered both questions. But how the hell had the woman ended up at Agartha?

He took a step back as Stacey continued, “She and her girls are some of Indie’s refugee seekers.” They did not have time for any further explanation, but something in the way the other woman shifted her weight side-to-side rang alarms in his mind.

“What do you know, Wanda?” his woman demanded.

“I’m not sure. Maybe it’s nothing. Perhaps I’m putting one and one together and getting five. But that’s always what I thought about Daddy’s death. Until Earl threatened me with a little accident like Daddy’s.” Reb was unsure what the woman was talking about, but Stacey’s quick nod told him it was important.

The woman’s blond head dropped, and she studied the dry red dirt beneath her shoes. Finally, after a long moment, she lifted her blue eyes and met Stacey’s stare. Whatever unspoken communication transpired between the women seemed intense.

“The last vacation that Earl took us on was to Mexico. We stopped in Torreon. At this big house outside of the city. Earl said it belonged to an old friend of his. He made us wait in the car even though he was in there for a couple of hours. It was blazing hot, but we did not dare get out.”

The woman stammered, her hands fidgeting as she continued. “But it’s not just that. Sometimes he’d take things of Beth’s. I asked him once why he needed a teenage girl’s clothes. But he only backhanded me. I wondered about that. Earl was always careful not to leave any bruises on my face, where people could see or talk. But not that time. I thought I must have touched a nerve.”

Reb nodded, “Did he tell you his friend’s name?”

“No. He never told me anything. But I did overhear him once. Speaking to someone on the phone. He said that Diego would not be happy about that.”

Stacey’s eyes sought Reb’s, and he saw the recognition there as well. “There is suspicion that your husband was involved with smuggling drugs, but not just that. With human trafficking as well. With abducting young girls and sneaking them across to the border….”

The woman collapsed on her knees in the dirt. Her fingers ran nervously through her hair. She rocked back and forth, her whole body shaking and crying. “Oh, god, no. He meant it. He really could make her disappear.”

Stacey knelt beside the woman, grabbing her hands and pulling them down to her side. “Look at me, Wanda. Look at me. Make who disappear.”

“Beth. My girls. He said that if I ever left him, he had a better way of punishing me than just killing me. He said that he would take the girls from me. That he could make them disappear so far down the hole no one could ever find them.”

“Down the hole?” Stacey looked to Reb, “Isn’t that what Mercy said he told her?”

“Yeah, it is.” He, too, knelt next to the woman though he remained far enough away that Wanda Kerr would not be threatened. “Think. Please think. Is there anything else? Did you ever see him with a young girl? A woman you did not recognize? Anything?”

“Yeah, just once. This pretty light-skinned black girl. She looked a bit older than Beth. I asked if he wanted to bring her into the house since it was hot. He said that she was a runaway. He was taking her to jail until her family came from Dallas to pick her up. I didn’t think much of it. I mean, Sebida is between Dallas and Houston. I thought maybe he had picked her up hitchhiking or something.”

“But when I went by the jail later to check on her, the dispatcher told me there was no girl there. Then Earl came in. He told Dottie that I must be confused, that I was probably drinking again. But I swear, Stacey, I’m not a drunk. Only a little bit now and then. To deaden the pain.”

Reb watched his partner stiffen at the woman’s words. He knew that this must all be tearing her up inside. He was confident that even he did not know the full details of what happened between her and this woman’s husband. But he knew enough.

Had this woman been involved? Was she an enabler? Or another victim? He would have asked, no, demanded that his mother and sister break confidentiality. He needed to know what threat her presence presented to Stacey. But there was no time.

After a long pause, Stacey forced a smile and held out her hand. “Don’t worry about it, Wanda.”

“There’s something else. I can’t know for sure. But Earl spent an awful lot of time at Daddy’s old fishing cabin. Maybe that’s where he took them?”

“Where is it? Can you draw me a map? Sebida is only a short detour from Chad’s place. Maybe we can check it out on the way?” Stacey looked to him for confirmation.

He shook his head. He was not prepared to share any more information around this woman whom they did not know.

The woman rose to her feet. “I have to get the girls. We have to go. We aren’t safe here anymore.” Wanda grabbed her hair and pulled as she wailed, “We’ll never be safe. No matter where we go.”

There was something desperate and wild in the other woman’s eyes that sent a chill down Reb’s spine. Stacey wrapped her arms around the woman. “Shhhh, you and the girls will be safe here. Reb and I will speak to his mother and sister. They’ll increase the security while we’re gone. You have to think of your girls. You can’t just run away when they are just starting to heal.”

But even as she spoke the words of reassurance, they rang hollow in Reb’s ears. How could one man wreak such havoc in so many lives? Even of those closest to him? His own children? That depth of depravity boggled his mind.

And Stacey’s family? Was any of them safe? Would they ever be? As long as Earl Kerr lived? Maybe her plan hadn’t been such a bad idea after all? Perhaps Earl had to die? Maybe it wasn’t about right or wrong? Perhaps it was just the only way?

They all turned back and walked towards Shangrila. Reb knew that he would have a battle on his hands to convince Stacey to remain here. Hell, he was not sure he would win it. Maybe that was not even their best option? She was correct; the woman was a damned good shot. What was more, if anything did happen to Mercy… He did not want to even think about it.

They had just reached the end of the path. Stacey turned towards the other woman, “Go, take care of those girls. Like Reb said, we’ll talk to his mother and make sure ya’ll are safe.”

The woman shook her head, but a small group approached them from the building before Wanda could say anything. The first one he noticed was his sister. Of course, waddling from side to side, Indie looked more like a human beach ball. One that was over-inflated and about to burst. Not that he dared say any of that to his sister.

He stiffened as he saw the man walking just behind her. Over the past weeks, he had learned more of Mason Jamison’s history. A highly decorated but primarily classified military record in the SEALs, the man was babysitting some celebrity experiencing a ‘breakdown’ when he came here. His mother ‘sensed’ something in him. If that was what she was calling it these days, who was he to argue? As long as the man did not cause any trouble, and so far, he had not.

Reb frowned as he noticed Barry and his mother, arm and arm behind them. “What are you doing here?” Although he did not specifically address the question to any of them.

His father was the one to speak, “Your mother and I have spoken, son. It sounds like you could use a bit of help. So, Mason and I are going with you.”

He shook his head, “No fucking way. I hate to point this out, dad, but you ain’t a young man anymore.”

“Which is what makes me so valuable. Who’s gonna suspect an old man?”

He turned to his mother, “Talk some sense into him. I don’t have time. I need to get on the road.” He opened the back of Elvira and threw in the gun case. He wished now that he had bought a couple more of his own these past weeks. He was not sure what he had been thinking.

“I tried, Rebel. But you get your stubbornness from your father.” It was as close to an admission of what he had long suspected as the woman had ever come. But he had no time now to dwell on any of it.

“Listen, I know we haven’t gotten off to the best of starts, but let me help,” the younger man reached out and touched his arms.

Reb breathed deeply and fought back the urge to beat the man to the ground, or at least try. “I don’t have time to wait.”

“That’s fine; we can be right behind you, son. Half an hour tops. Just let us load up a truck, and we’ll meet you wherever you say.”

He was about to shake his head again when he felt the small hand on his other arm. He looked down into her face. He could read the worry in every line around Stacey’s mouth, eyes, and forehead. “Please. If we’re going up against a drug cartel, we could use all the help we can get.”

Wasn’t that the very argument he had used to bully Chad into agreeing to cooperate? Was it any less accurate now? “Okay, but I am not waiting. I’ll message you coordinates of the meeting point when I have them.”

“We. We are not waiting,” Stacey squeezed his arm. He wanted to argue. Demand that she remain here, where she would be safe. But something deep inside told him that would that be futile, that she would only follow him. And he was no longer sure what was even the right thing.

This was her family, her daughter’s life, that was on the line. She had every right to be there, be part of the decisions, more than he did. He would just have to make damned sure to protect her. He nodded slowly, “We.”

“I’m coming, too.” The voice was barely audible. When Reb turned, the woman’s blond head was bent, her eyes glued to red sand for which this region was famous.

He was about to argue, but Stacey beat him to it. “No, Wanda, you can’t. You have those girls to think about. Like I said earlier, they need you here. They’re happy. You said so yourself that they’re finally settling in.”

Tears were streaming down Wanda Kerr’s face, and her voice trembled, “You, of all people, should understand, Stacey. How can my girls ever be safe when that man is alive? I have to go. I have to.”

Reb could hear the panic, desperation, perhaps even a touch of insanity in each word. He was not sure there was anything that any of them could do to stop the woman. She turned to his mother. He was frightened for a moment by the wild look in her blue eyes, but she only gripped his mother’s dress.

“Please, I have to go. I just know it. You said to trust your instinct. I never did with Earl. He was so handsome, so much older. All my friends said I was lucky to have a man like that interested in me. And I listened to them rather than my gut. I’ve paid for that for twenty years. My girls have paid, too. But this time, I know, I have to follow my gut.”

His mother’s eyes sought his. He read her concern in their depths. But he recognized resignation as well. He did not like this. An old man and two women, none of whom had any business going into such danger. But his gut, that instinct which, as Kerr’s wife said he had turned off long ago, was screaming loud and clear now. This was how it was meant to be. His shoulders slumped in defeat. “We’re not waiting.”

His mother nodded as Mason spoke, “She can come with us.” The man looked to his mother, who now wrapped her arms around the woman, almost holding her up. “An hour. No more, Cellie.”

Reb cringed at the man’s use of his mother’s nickname, but that was the least of his worries as he turned to Stacey. “Let’s go.”

“Elvira, Elvira. My heart’s on fire for Elvira.” She sang.

Reb laughed as he wrapped his arm about her and drew her into his embrace. Even in this darkness, she was his light. “My secret weapon. Just let you sing, darlin.’”

Her punch to his side was only glancing, “No, that would be you. Come on, let’s get back….”

“On the road again, making music with my friends. I can’t wait to get on the road again.”

The somber mood was broken with laughter as the others turned back to Shangrila.

2 thoughts on “Part 12 – Wednesday’s Blues

  1. I do love this story (the whole thing–not just this chapter) I’ll be sorry to see it finished up, but all things come to an end, even good things.

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