Part 15 – Saturday Morning Confusion

***Garcia compound, outside Torreon, Mexico***

James Travis Tyler stood next to the black SUV discussing the operation with his Mexican counterpart. It had not been easy to convince the man to put his reputation on the line or his men’s lives. Or perhaps, this man too was on Garcia’s payroll?

His eyes glanced at the next vehicle over. Mike Saunders had been with the agency since J. T. was in grade school. Yet, Garcia had somehow managed to pay the man off. J. T. wasn’t sure who he could trust anymore. His personal assistant and a supervisor with the agency? One on leave pending further investigation and the other under arrest.

He tried to focus on what the other man was saying. While his Spanish was good, he was not a native speaker. He needed to concentrate. But he was finding that harder to do since his brother’s wedding. No matter what the great Marianne Buford Walker Tyler thought of Alicia Flores or her daughter Hope, he was happy to see his baby brother find the happiness that Jon deserved. Someone in his family should.

But he knew that his brother’s happiness was not what weighed on his mind. It was seeing Steve McAllister again. After a quarter of a century, it was like a sucker punch to the solar plexus. Of course, his mother had gone ballistic.

“Señor Tyler?”

J. T. shook his head and looked at the other man. “I’m sorry. There’s a lot on my mind.”

“Sí, I understand. As I was saying….”

But before the Mexican official could repeat whatever he had said, a shot rang out. The convoy of almost two dozen US and Mexican law enforcement vehicles, close to one hundred men and women, all seemed frozen. They were less than a quarter of a mile from the entrance to the Garcia compound. Just out of the direct line of sight for the sentries posted at the gate.

“Dang it,” J. T. did not really cuss. His mother had taught them that such crass words were only used by people who lacked the intelligence to communicate their frustrations more eloquently. One of her many small strictures by which he had lived his forty years on this planet.

But what did he expect? He should have known better than to become involved in an unauthorized operation like this. He would have once trusted both Ryan Ranger and Caleb Williams to know better than such things. But both men had betrayed their oath of office. One for love, and the other for….

He still could not fathom Will’s reasoning for helping someone like Gerald McBride. For throwing away a promising career. But he would have time to question the man further after this. There was still a warrant for his arrest after all.

That, too, would have to wait as more shots rang out. Running into a firefight blind was not a smart move. He had the lives of over fifty men and women in his hands. Did he send them in now? Sure, he had made a promise to Jaycee and Laura Reynolds. But that was to take custody of the McBrides and escort everyone safely across the border. Not run into madness.

He pulled out his phone and tried texting the number that Jaycee had given him. He studied the screen. What if those vigilantes killed Garcia? That was not justice either. Still no response. How long did he wait?

He looked to the other man, who appeared just as uncertain. This was his jurisdiction. It should be his call. Or was that merely his way of copping out? Just as he had all his life.

His eyes fell once more on Mike Saunders. Did the man know anything? He seemed more nervous than the others. Was that because he knew what was happening? Or because he feared that Garcia would sell him out if apprehended? J. T. had taken the initiative of assigning two other agents that he could trust to stick close to the man. Just in case.

He paced in front of the vehicle. Were the shots more frequent now? It sounded like a war zone in there. Despite all those crime dramas on television and the movies, the truth was that it was exceedingly rare for there to be gunfire during sting operations. What should they do?

He looked up in time to see an old man running in their direction. What was someone that old doing running? Perhaps it was some servant. Likely given the white shirt and black trousers. The man appeared to be Native American, but many Mexicans were.

His colleague raised his gun and commanded the man to stop in Spanish. He slowed, but rather than respond to Cesar, the old man stared at him. “You need to take your people in.”

J. T. shook his head, “I don’t risk my people’s lives without intel.”

The man placed his hands on his knees and leaned over, drawing in several long breathes before he looked back up. “Consuela Garcia shot Rafael Dominguez. That’s what started the blood bath. Perhaps you believe it is right to let such people kill one another, but there are innocents in there too. They will get caught in the crossfire.”

“Shit,” it was the first cuss word since J. T. was thirteen, but maybe his mother was wrong. Perhaps sometimes, there just were no other words that would do.

“What do you know? Where are they?”

The man shook his head, “Probably all over by now. The party was to celebrate the marriage of Dominguez’s daughter to Garcia’s younger brother. But the old woman didn’t want the girl to marry her younger son. She wanted her to marry Diego.”

“Garcia is married already. The daughter of another cartel leader. The man…”

“A man who Garcia killed. Along with his sons. The woman is insane.”

“Or just evil. Consuela Garcia…”

“Not her. Anna was insane. Driven that way by what happened to her family and her marriage to their murderer.”

“Was? She was killed in this….”

“No, Consuela poisoned her. To make way for….”

Saunders stepped forward. He was the senior agent on this operation since Stephens had been relieved of duty. “How can we trust anything the old man says? We don’t even know who he is.”

“Raymond Greywolf. I’m Raymond Greywolf.” The man’s eyes held only revulsion.

The name rang a distant bell for J. T. The agency had a file on this man going back to before he was born. He was some civil rights leader among the First Nations. But generally speaking, the man advocated for non-violence. There was something else too, but he could not quite place it.

“My grandson’s cousin is Ryan Ranger. I have known the man since he was thirteen.”

“Ranger? Stephens fired him.” Saunders stepped closer to the man.

J. T. held out his hand to block the man. “Actually, Ryan quit because he had become involved with a potential witness. Are they involved?” He addressed the question to the older man.

“No, at least they weren’t when it all started. But they’re near here. I have no doubt they won’t wait for ‘intel.’ They’re here to rescue those women.”

“What women?” Saunders roared as he lunged at the man.

Those dark eyes that were deep as the night sky met J. T.’s. “Back off, Saunders. Now.”

So, Garcia did not tell his people everything. It was no surprise. But he did not want this man to know his boss held the McBrides. It might be too much of a temptation for the man. The old man smiled and nodded, ‘Wise, my son.’

J. T. shook his head. It was accustomed to voices in his head, but those were his mother’s whiny complaints and admonitions. Of course, he had hardly slept these past weeks since Jon’s wedding. Living a lie was catching up to him. So, auditory hallucinations should not surprise him.

He studied the man for another long moment. “Can you get us in?”

Ray Greywolf nodded, “The men at the gate ran towards the house when they heard the guns. I was able to get right past them.”

“Get in, then.” Saunders reached for the man’s arm, but he shook his head. “No, he comes with me. I want your team to secure the gate and the perimeter. This is not our show. We don’t have warrants or jurisdiction here. So, we follow the Federales.”

The other man opened his mouth as if to argue but closed it quickly. Yeah, he needed to make sure someone had eyes on Saunders at all times. He held open the door for Raymond Greywolf, who only smiled as he got inside.

He had been right. J. T. would have never expected to just be able to drive up to the front door of the Garcia compound. An open door at that. Cesar and the man got out of the car. Cesar directed his men to both sides of the house, but most went straight ahead through those open doors.

They quickly encountered a couple of armed men, but they laid down their weapons as instructed. He would have sworn that one of them looked almost relieved when the cuffs were snapped into place, and he was pushed towards the door. They could hear more gunfire coming from ahead, but it seemed to be less frequent now.

J. T. was about to follow Cesar’s men further down the hall when a hand grabbed his arm. He turned to find the old man shaking his head. “This way.”

The door was partially closed. When the old man pushed it open, J. T. felt his chest constrict, “Holy fuck!”

Bebe watched the others pile into the vehicles and head across the desert. They would be there in less than two minutes. She knew that what the man said was right. She had no skills. She would only be a liability. Especially when it came to her cousin. And Will needed to focus on finding Mercy.

She went back inside the house and rummaged through the bags, finding bandages and a first-aid kit. But what good would it do them here? Sure, if it was just something minor, but it would not be safe to transport anyone if they were seriously wounded. Why hadn’t they taken it with them? Probably time.

She paced the floor for a moment. She knew it was ridiculous, but something told her that she needed to be there. Maybe not in the thick of things, but nearby. Perhaps she could help Mercy and the others. Maybe she could just take the medical supplies. She was probably justifying what she wanted to do with this ‘feeling.’ But dammit, she had spent over three years doing what someone else told her. Hell, her whole life.

Bebe dropped to her knees, finding a backpack and stuffing bandages, the first-aid kit, a couple bottles of water, and a blanket in it. She left the rest of the supplies there in case someone needed them. Then she took off running towards the lights she saw in the distance.

By the time she got there, things were quieter. The occasional gunshot still broke the dark night, but it was not the almost constant barrage it had been when the others left.

She headed straight for the little house. The door was open. The lights were on. But she saw no sign of Mercy or the others in the front rooms. She opened the door to the bedroom. She had not dared call out earlier for fear that someone would overhear her. But she did now, though not loudly.

The old man was still sleeping. Though how that was possible with all the noise, she had no idea. She called one more time but got no reply. She quickly checked the bathroom, thinking perhaps the women were all hiding in there. But it was empty too.

She knew that they could not have gotten far with the woman, not on foot. She stood just inside the front door, looking out. Lights blazed in almost every room of the main house. She considered going there. But it seemed to be the center of that gunfire. And even if she knew how to fire a gun, she did not have one.

Her eyes took in the desert. Perhaps that is where the women went. It would make sense. But they could not get far. Not on foot. She turned – the barn, of course. The girl loved horses, she remembered from their brief conversations. And if they could get her mother on a horse, they could have gotten away.

Assuming they were not safe with the others. But as bad a shape as the woman was, something told her they would have either posted guards and left them in the house. Or they would have taken them back to the house. She had not seen the truck or any other sign of them.

The barn made sense. She would check it out first. Then head to the main house. Maybe it would be safe by then. She ran the short distance, thankful that there was no moon to reveal her.

She froze in the doorway. The old priest, she had seen him a few times in the village, knelt next to someone. He had those stupid beads that always hung from the rope around his waist clutched tightly in his fingers. His mouth was moving, but she could not hear what he said. His face was white and drawn. Wasn’t this man used to death by now?

Next to him, a woman knelt. She was perhaps the most beautiful woman that Bebe had ever seen. Dark hair and light eyes against porcelain skin. Her hands tenderly caressed the person’s face as tears ran down her cheeks.

Bebe stepped inside the barn. This was likely one of Garcia’s men. The priest would not be so upset if it were one of Dominguez’s. She had medical supplies. But should she save them? What if one of the other men needed them? But she had not taken them all.

She stepped further into the light. They could see her, but neither looked up. Was the old man crying too? “I have bandages….” Her voice came out a whisper.

But her heart stopped when the injured man turned his head, “Bobby.”

“Bebé,” his face contorted in pain just from the one word.

She dropped to her knees next to the other woman. She had a good idea who she was now. How had she ever thought he would choose her over this woman?

Bobby’s lifted his hands from where they gripped his stomach. She was almost sick right then. Bebe looked away before she was. She felt a hand grip hers. Pain, fear, and guilt assailed her. More potent than anything she had ever felt. She inhaled and fought nausea harder. When she turned back, Bebe was careful to keep her eyes on his ashen face.

“Lo siento. I’m sorry. I never meant….”

“Shhh, Roberto, be quiet. I will find Papa’s doctor. We’ll get you to the hospital, and everything will be fine.”

Bobby turned to the other woman, and Bebe’s heart shattered into a million pieces at the tender and protective look in his dark eyes. There was no doubt that this man desired her. She had more than enough experience with men these past three years to know when one wanted her. But never once had Bobby looked at her that way.

He shook his head, “No, Constanza. You know the truth.” But despite the pain of that revelation, his next words gutted her as much as they did the other woman. “I’m dying.” Both of them sobbed louder at his words.

“Tio,” the old man lifted his head though he kept those beads clenched tightly in his fingers.

“Take Connie away from this place.”

The other girl shook her head, “No, Roberto. I will stay with you.”

“Listen to me, Connie. This is your chance. You can get away from your father. From this life. Tio can get you to another convent. One where your father will never find you. You can become a nun. Just as you wanted.” He coughed, and the pain on his face was like another knife to her heart.

Bobby closed his eyes, and she feared that she would never again see the light in their dark depths. But after a couple of deep breathes, he forced them open. “Tio, will you do this for me?”

The old man nodded his head, “Of course, my son.”

Bobby nodded; the relief was evident on his face. He released her hand and jealously gripped her broken heart as he took the other woman’s instead. “Please, Constanza. Do this for me. Maybe it is your god’s will that all this happened. Perhaps as you once told me, you were meant for the church. All I ask is that you say a prayer for me occasionally. I never deserved someone like you. I never could. It’s better this way.”

The girl shook her head, crying, but it was the old man to whom he turned. “Go. Now, Tio. Before anyone discovers us. Please, make sure she is safe.”

“I promise, Roberto. I know of a place. She will be safe there.” The man grabbed the girl’s shoulders and lifted her up. Constanza was crying so hard that her whole body shook. She tried to break away from the older man, but he only held her tighter. Pulling her from the barn.

Bebe watched Bobby’s face. Every emotion that played across it. Guilt. Regret. And, worst of all, love and respect. She did not even need to touch this man to know his feelings for the other woman.

When they were finally out of sight, he turned to her and held out his hand. “I am so sorry, Bebé.”

She only shrugged, as if knowing that the man she loved cared for another woman more than he had her did not matter. She reached for the bag, “I have bandages.”

He shook his head, “No, they won’t do any good. Only prolong things.”

She wanted to draw back when he lifted that bloody hand and ran his thumb down her cheek. If she had been stronger, she would have. A strong woman did not beg for crumbs of affection from any man’s table. A strong woman knew her worth.

But that was just it. She did know her worth. Whore. Jezebel. Tainted woman. Harlot. Not even a killer could love someone like her.

“Will you stay with me?” He held out that blood-stained hand. “Please.”

Bebe knew if she took his hand that it would all overwhelm her. Now especially, this man’s memories, pains, and regrets would all bubble to the surface. Just as his blood was boiling from the wound in his abdomen.

But she took it anyway. She could hear her Grandmother’s voice. ‘Love is patient; love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’

And despite her father’s hellfire and brimstone, Etta Mae Williams had always told her that love was unconditional. It wasn’t real love if it wasn’t. And her love for this man, as warped and complicated as it was, was her gift to give. As she saw fit.

Maybe other people would judge her for that. She was sure that her father would. Especially when he found out about the baby. Her cousin probably would too. Despite the age difference, Will had once been as close to a best friend as she got. But the years had changed her. Him too. They could not go back.

Hell, she’d probably spend years in therapy. Relive this moment and doubt herself a million times for the rest of her life.

But at this moment, she knew – it was the right thing to do.

She squeezed his fingers tighter. And forced a smile. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him about the baby. Their child. But he closed his eyes before she could. A smile played at the only lips she had ever kissed. The others had never been interested in such niceties. Not with a whore that they paid for.

The silence. The calm. The complete lack of memories and feelings raped her mind, as others had raped her body. And she knew that he was gone. Where? She had no idea. But he was.

She screamed as she clutched his bloody shirt. Tears mixed with the blood, and she cried. Cried for the little boy that had never understood why his mother hated him so much. Cried for the innocent girl ripped from that bus stop. Cried for dead dreams and dead killers. She sobbed.

Until she felt familiar hands grip her shoulders and drag her away from the shell that growing colder with each tear. “Shh, Bebe, I’ll take you home. Everything will be alright.”

She jerked from her cousin’s embrace. She felt that, too. His hatred for Bobby. Her cousin, one of the few people that she had trusted. But that kind of hate changed a person. She swung her fists, connecting with his shoulder. “No. Nothing will be okay. Ever again.” The darkness overcame her, and she crumpled at Will’s feet.

Chad raced towards the little house. They should have been here quicker. He understood Ryan’s reluctance. It might have been another lifetime ago, but he had led men into battle, too. He was more than aware that this situation sucked. They had no idea what they were going into. This Grandfather was nowhere to be found. They weren’t sure if they would be fighting their own government.

But they needed to get the hostages out. Hostages? Two of those were his daughter and the woman he loved. Ryan had barely been able to control either him or Will. While things were still tense, the other man was right behind him as they burst into the house. True to his word, Travis Baker had his back.

It did not take them long. There were only three rooms, really. And a dead man in the bedroom. Will had lost his shit then. “If the Garcias know he’s dead….” Whatever else he was going to say was lost as he ran from the house.

He and Trav did one more round of the house, looking in closets, cupboards, under the bed, even knocking for secret compartments. But nothing. Other than bloody bedding in the living room and Rose’s equally bloody clothes in the bathroom. They knew that she was injured, but he had no idea she had lost this much blood.

Chad felt his own anxiety rising as he stepped out of the house, looking around the compound. There was less gunfire coming from the main house now. Maybe they should head there?

Then he noticed the horses in a corral. A barn? That’s where his baby would go. Grace would head straight for them. He raced across the small distance. He knew that Travis would quite literally have his back on this one, running backward with gun drawn.

Even before they got to the barn, Will came out. Tears were running down his cheeks. There was someone in his arms. Chad focused on the woman. It could not be Mercy. This girl was black or multi-racial. Her long curls fell over Will’s arm. His cousin. What was Bebe doing here? They had left her at that abandoned house.

“Is she okay?” Leave it to Trav to voice his question.

“I think so. She’s covered in blood. But I don’t think it is hers. Roberto Garcia is in there.”

Chad felt the anger surging over. The other man that he knew was responsible for taking his daughter. And there was no good reason not to kill this one.

As if reading his mind, Will met his eyes. “He’s dead already. Shot. He and Bebe were…” Will bit his lips as he stared down at the young woman in his arms. “He raped a fifteen-year-old. But she fucking fell for his shit. She passed out when I pulled her from his dead arms, okay?”

It was a sucker punch to Chad’s gut. He had listened to this guy’s story, called them excuses. But not until that moment did he get it. What if that was Grace? What if she had been auctioned to the highest bidder? Forced into prostitution. And the only kindness she knew was from a man almost twice her age, who was only using her?

“I’m sorry,” he could barely push the words past the lump in his throat. Ryan had told him, but even then, he had not understood. The man was right. He faced the truth about himself in the face of that other girl. Yes, he would have done just what this man did. Or worse. To save his child.

But Grace was still missing, so were Rose and this man’s woman. “Any sign of the others?”

“No, but I don’t know how many horses were in there. If any are missing. Or even what Roberto was doing there. He swore he would help me get them out. Was that what he was doing? Did someone catch him? Shoot him and take them? There’s another dead man in there. A damned pitchfork in his back. But I don’t know….”

“We need to get her somewhere safe until this is over,” this voice was feminine. They looked up to see Reb and Stacey and the other guy, Mason, that was his name. “Take her to the house. I’ll stay with her there.”

Reb frowned, “You can’t stay with her alone, sweetheart.”

The woman smiled, patted his cheek, then held up her gun. “I’m not. I have Smith and Wesson with me.”

Mason laughed, “Damn man, I want me one of those.”

Reb glared at the other man. Chad had noticed that there was almost as much tension between those two as between him and Will. But he had no idea what their story was. “Find your own.”

Stacey put her hand on the man’s chest and gave him one of those looks. The kind meant for children when they acted naughty – or men when they did. “Carry her to the house for me,” she told Will.

The small band retreated the way he had come, with Reb, Trav, and Mason taking point. Stacey indicated that they lay her on the couch where that bloody bedding still lay. She turned to her partner, “Get me some water from the kitchen. Will, see if you can find some kind of cloth to wet. A towel, sheet, shirt, anything.”

It was evident that the woman had taken control of the situation. But Rose, Grace, and Mercy were still missing. He turned to Travis, “Let’s head to the main house.”

Will passed something to Stacey Reynolds, and she smiled, “Thanks.” She wiped it across the girl’s bloody brow. The young woman blinked her eyes and looked up at Stacey. “Are you hurt?”

The girl shook her head and looked around the room. When her eyes met her cousin’s, she turned her back. “Make him leave.”

Chad felt that knife, too. This man had given up his career, broken his code of ethics, and placed the woman he loved in danger. To find this girl. And this? He put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder, “Come with us. Let’s see if we can find them.” That was what this man needed now. To focus on Mercy.

“Go with the others, Reb. We’ll be fine. Bring any other injured here.”

“Sure thing, Florence Nightingale.”

“That’s Clara Barton, and watch your mouth. She was my hero growing up.” The younger woman tried to sit up, but Stacey put her hand on Bebe’s shoulder. “Just rest a few minutes, okay.”

Reb looked to him and the other men, “You heard, Clara. Let’s go, boys.”

They kept low as they approached the house from the back. Reb seemed to count as they crouched outside under some turned-over wicker patio furniture. There were half-dozen bodies strewn around the area. But all were men. Most appeared dead, though one was crawling towards an old tree. He nodded to Travis, and he broke away from the others, following the man.

“Okay, we have no idea what we’ll find in there. But it’s been over two minutes since the last gunshot. The house is too big. We need to break into teams. Chad, you and your friend come with me. We’ll take the ground floor. Will, you and Mason find some stairs. Cover the top floors.”

They all nodded, and Chad smiled at the man’s leadership. Putting the two men who were the center of the tensions together was the kind of genius that he would have done himself. In another life. Will and Mason went first. Reb’s eyes scoured the area, but there was no attempt to stop them. “Okay, let’s move out. But stay close.”

They moved faster across the open ground to the dim corridor that appeared to be the central passage in and out of the house. More secure knowing that no one had fired on the others. There were more bodies in the hallway.

Chad could see men streaming in through open doors straight ahead. They were heavily armed and wore armor. He hoped like hell they were the good guys, the support that Ryan said was coming. But they had no way of knowing. And even then, there was the possibility that they would be mistaken for the bad guys.

But even if they were government agents, their job was arresting people and gathering evidence. Finding his family would be secondary to these men. Reb seemed to be having the same thoughts, his face scrunched in a frown. “Where the fuck is Ryan and the others?”

Ryan, Reb’s father, Rex, and Jack had gone around to the front of the house. It would have taken them even longer to get into position, which was one reason Reb had held his team back. But they had seen no sign of the other men. “Shit, we can’t wait any longer.”

“Let’s break up. Each of us takes a room,” Chad knew it was more dangerous. But they were running out of time. Reb paused; he knew the man weighed up the options.

But he’d be damned if he waited. He lifted his gun and took the first door to his left. He stopped just inside the room. He had seen natural disasters and war zones, but this room looked like something out of a Hollywood version of those. Expensive furniture, antiques, Persian carpets, and rows upon rows of books covered in blood. Dead people around the room like props. He knew this was no set.

A woman, perhaps Rose’s age, maybe a bit older, lay on an expensive couch. Her body stretched out in repose. Her hands crossed lovingly over her heart. There was no sign of blood or any injury. As if the woman had simply died peacefully in her sleep.

An old man lay on the floor just inside the doorway. Two other men half covered him. They were all covered in blood. Their bodies were riddled with bullets.

But what held his attention was the older woman that half lay in some ornate chair. Her arms flayed out across the chair. But her legs and lower half of her body slumped on the floor. Her dark eyes were wide open as if in shock. Chad could see red and blue marks around her neck, just above the string of pearls that she wore. Behind her lay a couple more bullet-filled bodies.

He was frozen in place for a long moment staring into the woman’s dead eyes. Then he heard the sobbing like a small child who had lost its mother. “She’s gone. She’s dead. She killed my Anna.”

Chad looked to his left and finally noticed the other men in the room. He recognized one face, the man who had led the search for his family. He flung himself at J. T. Tyler. “Where are they? Where is my family?”

The man stared at him as others pulled him off Tyler. Chad drew in a deep breath. Of course, Tyler had no idea who he was talking about. “Where are the McBrides? Where are Cassie and Callie?” Just the sound of those names coming out of his mouth was a bitter reminder of all they had endured. Thanks to McBride.

Tyler shook his head, “We don’t know. My men and the local authorities are looking for them now. We’re trying to question Garcia. But you can see….” The man motioned to the figure that Chad realized was handcuffed.

This was Garcia? The great mastermind of one of Mexico’s largest and most dangerous cartels. This man rocking back and forth with tears streaming down his face. His eyes never leaving the face of the dead woman on the couch. This mad man? Did all this? Sold drugs that killed people and destroyed families? Kidnapped little girls and sold them into slavery? Ordered the murder of Gerald and Stephen McBride? That pathetic figure? It made no sense.

“What? Who?” was all he could babble.

“That’s Anna Garcia. His wife. We’re still trying to figure out what happened here. But the old man says that Consuela Garcia, his mother, poisoned her.”

Chad shook his head, “Old man? What old man?”

The one they called Grandfather stepped from behind Tyler. “They are fine, I promise, my son.”

Chad had had enough of the old man’s mystical bullshit. He wanted answers. Now. But since Tyler and half a dozen agents stood between him and the old man, he went for the one he could get his hand on. Before anyone could react, he flung himself on Garcia. His fist connected with the man’s face. But still, those eyes never left the woman. “She’s dead.”

He did not know, was Garcia talking about Callie, Cassie, his mother, or his wife? He wanted to keep pounding the man until he gave him the answers he needed. But something told Chad that would never happen.

He felt the hand on his shoulder. He was prepared to do battle as he turned. But it was the old man who stood behind him. Chad drew back his fist, but something happened. Suddenly, the anger left him. And he collapsed into the old man’s arms, crying as loudly as Garcia.

Was this what love did to you? The girl had fainted when she was pulled from the body of the man who had raped her. This man who should have been nothing more than cold, calculating evil was reduced to tears and madness. And he was no better. Was that it? Was love the great equalizer? Rich or poor, young or old, good or evil? Did love trump it all?

“Of course, it does, my son.”

Chad pulled back, wiped lamely at his eyes with the back of his hand. “I’m not your son.”

The man laughed, “And there is another great truth. We are related. Your woman and child are safe.”

“Where? Where are they then?”

“On their way back to you.” Chad would have probably hit the man then. Except another shot rang out. From somewhere above them. He was still trying to figure it all out when it was followed a moment later by more.

“Fuck, find where that is coming from,” Tyler screamed as men raced from the room. Chad followed them, finding Reb and Travis in the hall.

Reb’s eyes met his, “Have you seen Will or Mason?”

The moment Will opened the door, the stench hit him. He knew it, though rarely had he smelled death so ripe. This was not recent. With his non-weapon hand, he lifted his shirt to cover his face. It barely made any difference. It was too dark to see much of anything, and he did not dare turn on the lights.

He inched forward slowly. The light from the hallway was just enough to illuminate a bed. Was that someone in it? Was that the source of the smell? He debated and finally reached for the flashlight that they all carried. He would have much-preferred night vision goggles, but this was not some well-equipped official operation.

But it should have been. He fought back the anger that threatened to overcome his sanity and calm professionalism. The clue had been there all along. In Bebe’s case file. But no one had bothered to investigate. She was nothing more than another missing black girl, presumed to be a runaway. He gritted his teeth as he pushed down thoughts of all his cousin had been through.

Now she would not even look him in the face. He had lost his career, put Mercy into danger, and Bebe fainted over the pedophile who had used her? He drew his mind back to the present. He would think of all that later. Right now, the only thing that mattered was finding Mercy and the McBrides. No, Grace. And Rose.

The light hit the figure in the bed, and Will almost lost the cold beans he had eaten earlier as they waited in that abandoned house. If not for the stained nightgown with frilly lace around the neck, he would not have even been able to identify the body’s sex. He forced himself to look away as he shined the light around the room. But other than a chair and some ornate wardrobe, there was nothing of interest in this room. Was the body another of Garcia’s victims?

All thought of the dead woman was pushed to the back of his mind as the shot rang out. It was close. The other guy, Mason, had taken the other end of the hall. They had agreed to work their way and meet in the middle. Had he discovered something?

Will listened for more shots as he made his way down the hall. He stuck close to the shadows, just in case. He stuck his head in each room, looking for any sign of a disturbance. The next room obviously belonged to a woman. A lamp glowed on the bedside table, illuminating a dressing table, wardrobe, and four-poster bed with luxurious silk sheets, pillows, and comforter. The carpet was plush. But there was no sign of the room’s mistress or anyone else. There was a door on one wall that likely connected to other rooms.

Will crept to the next door. He pushed it open quietly. This was likely Diego Garcia’s bedroom. The furnishings were even grander than the other one. The door on the wall confirmed his earlier suspicions. This room connected to the other, likely his wife’s. Will shone the light around, but there was no sign of life here either.

The next door was open already. A light was on. Will raised his gun as he noticed the body on the floor. Another man sat at the ornate desk, rifling through drawers. He could not see the man’s face since the only light came from a desk lamp that was pointed down. But he watched the shadows as he leaned down to feel for a pulse.

The figure on the floor moaned and turned his head. Will was relieved to see that Mason was still alive. But that relief was quickly replaced with anger as the other man looked up at the sound, “Saunders.”

“If it isn’t the little traitor,” the man laughed.

Will kept his gun aimed at the man, “We both know who the real traitor is. How much did Garcia pay you?”

“A helluva a lot more than five grand, that’s for sure.”

“Why? Why would you sell out everything you worked for?”

“Such an idealist. Even now? My divorce cleared me out. I was paying for my kid’s college and living in a studio apartment. I’d worked all my life. Put my life on the line. And that’s how I ended up? The bitch even got half my pension in the settlement.”

“For money?”

“Not all of us can afford to be idealists, Williams. I was looking at retirement, and I had nothing. Do you know what that feels like? To have the courts take everything you worked for and give it to your ex-wife? What kind of a country does that?”

“So, you’re looking to cover your tracks? Make certain that Garcia doesn’t have any records that could destroy your reputation, is that it?”

The man laughed, “Not as dumb as most of your kind, are you?”

Will fought back the anger at the man’s prejudices. He needed all his wits about him. If he was to get them out of here. Someone would have heard the shot that took Mason down. If he could just stall a bit longer, someone would come. If Saunders was here, chances were good that other agents were too. Or maybe Reb and the others would find them. Though he was not sure that Chad would save his backside at this point.

“So, what’s the plan? Destroy any evidence. Then join the others, like nothing happened.” Did this man know that Tyler had been tipped off about his activities already?

“Yeah, but of course, we both know that means I can’t leave any witnesses,” the man lifted his gun.

But Will had known this and was ready. He pulled the trigger even as the pain lanced through his shoulder. As he fought back the nausea that accompanied the red bloom on his shirt, his only thought was, ‘Where are you, Mercy?’

Ryan’s whole body ached as he looked at the little rag-tag group. They had spent close to an hour searching the desert around the Garcia compound for the women after Rex had caught a whiff of horses and female blood. There was no cellphone reception, so he had lost track of the other men he had sent to the compound. They had almost given up and turned back, but Rex had insisted he could smell the other horses.

They found them huddled beneath a cliff. Laura’s sister and the girl were fine. But Cassandra McBride was severely beaten and had lost a lot of blood. He had sent Jack back to the Garcia compound on one of the horses to ensure medical personnel was there for her when they arrived. Then he, Reb’s father, and Rex had led the women slowly back across the desert.

As they approached the compound, he was surprised to see half a dozen ambulances and more police than he could count. He knew that J. T. Tyler would be among those somewhere. And he was determined that he would deliver the women only into his hands.

Ryan was not surprised when Chad came running to meet them. He lifted the woman from the back of the horse, cradling her and whispering softly as she cuddled into his shoulder. But it was the girl that worried Ryan. Something about the way she drew back when the man looked in her direction. Grace dropped back, her rainbow head staring at the ground as she led the stallion by the reins.

His future sister-in-law was almost as bad. She turned her head from side to side, her eyes searching the horizon before she turned to the other man. “Where’s Will? Has anyone seen Caleb Williams?”

She had been relieved when Ryan had told her that he had hooked up with their group. But now, as she watched the reunion between Chad and his family, Ryan felt the tension rising in her. The way the other man would not meet her gaze directly told him that something was up even before the man spoke. “He was one of the injured.”

Chad did not get anything else out of his mouth before Mercy took off running towards the house. “Damn,” he knew that it would not be easy for her to find Will in the chaos, especially if J. T. had anything to say about it. The man was by the books type. None of them would be going anywhere until they were fully debriefed.

Reb’s father looked to the other man, “How bad is it?”

Chad shook his head, “I don’t know. He isn’t the worst, though. That fella who came with you and Reb, he’s pretty bad,” he spoke to the older man.

“Mason was shot?”

He could tell that Reb’s father was upset, but they were only a couple of minutes from the house. It would do them no good to separate now. “Tyler will be able to give us more information,” Ryan placed a restraining hand on the man’s shoulder. The old man nodded, but the worry was evident on his face as they continued in silence.

As he had said, it was only a couple of moments until the compound came into view. He sighed with relief to see Jack waiting by the barn with a couple of men carrying a large orange bag and a gurney. Chad headed straight to them without a word.

Ryan’s eyes scanned the area, looking for one person. The only one that could give him the information he needed. He finally found what he sought. Tyler was standing in the garden, near some old tree. Next to him were Grandfather and another man, wearing a bullet-proof vest. He guided Barry in that direction while Rex hung back with the girl who looked on the verge of tears.

J. T. looked up as they approached, “You found them.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Yeah, Cassandra McBride needs medical attention. Her daughter was with her, and Mercy….”

“Is in the ambulance with Williams.”

“What’s the casualties?”

“Williams has a gunshot wound to the shoulder. But he was also exposed to the virus. I have a call in now to the CDC, trying to figure out what our risks are. I had the other guy medivac to Laredo already.”

“What happened to Mason?”

“Is that his name?”

“Mason Cartwright,” Barry spoke up. “How is he?”

Tyler turned and addressed the older man, “Are you next of kin?”

Ryan saw the man wince at those words as he shook his head. “No, but I guess I’m as close as the boy’s got. His dad died in the Towers. He was a single father. His mother had died of cancer when he was young. His older sister raised him, but she and her children were murdered a couple of years ago by a family annihilator. Mason’s been staying at the eco-village my wife and I run in Arizona for the past few months. He’s helping us set up a domestic violence refuge.”

Tyler shook his head and reached out to put his hand on the man’s shoulder, “He was shot from behind. We’re not sure how bad it is yet, but he’s got no feeling in his legs. If you give your statement to one of our agents, I’ll have someone escort you across the border.”

Ryan studied Tyler’s face. Whether the man needed to work on his poker face or it was his golden gut again, he knew there was more to it than that. “How was he shot from behind, J. T.?” He used the man’s name rather than his title or last name to get his attention. Tyler was no longer his superior, and he wanted the man to know it. Besides, he enjoyed watching the man squirm.

“We aren’t finished taking statements yet, Ranger. You know I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation.”

Ryan was about to lunge for the man when Grandfather placed his hand on his chest. He felt the anger and anxiety vanish like smoke in a magic act. He hated when the old man did that. But he recognized the wisdom of that restraint as he watched the medics push the stretcher with Cassie McBride past them. Chad climbed into the ambulance as soon as they had her settled. The girl stood next to his cousin, watching as it drove away.

“What the fuck happened here?” Ryan felt the frustration and impotence tightening like a noose around his throat. His chest felt heavy, each breath an act of sheer willpower. He had been fighting back this red haze all his life. He had tried his damnedest to make some difference in this fucked up world. First by studying the law, then in the SEALs, and with the agency for the past three years.

And for what? The world was just as fucked up as it always had been. Men like Garcia still sold drugs that killed people. Kidnapped women and girls off the street and sold them like they were things. What if that had been his baby girl? Or Laura?

Ryan leaned forward, his hands on his knees, as he dropped his head. He was unsure which he wanted more – to scream at the injustice of it all or cry. At least two of the men he had brought to this cluster fuck were injured. A woman, too. And that girl? Those girls. Would either Bebe or Callie ever be the same? What was the point?

“Look up, my son.”

Ryan wanted to push the old man away, but he owed Raymond Greywolf more than that. If not for this man, the discipline he had taught him, he did not know what would have become of him. He inhaled deeply and met the man’s eyes.

“Not at me. At the sky. Tell me what you see.”

It was still night. He had no idea what time, but he could see the faintest of light on the horizon. He was not sure what the man wanted from him this time. “Nothing. Just the sky.”

“Nothing? Describe it for me, Ryan.”

He half-smiled, remembering that lifetime ago. That same gentle coaxing voice when the man was trying to make a point to any of them. “Darkness. Black sky.”

“Look closer, my son. What else do you see?”

There was no moon. That had been one of the things that slowed them from getting back to this place. Without moonlight, they had been forced to walk more slowly across the desert, uncertain what might trip them or the horses.

He shook his head; what did the old man want him to say? Then it came to him. “Stars.” He had rarely seen so many. Not since those summers on this man’s ranch. He had spent way too much time in cities with their pollution and bright lights to notice such things.

There were millions of them. Ryan had been so caught up in getting back here that he had not noticed. And while they were not bright enough to light the path back, they shone even more brilliant in the night sky without the moon.

“That is the point. You are one of those stars, Ryan. These men that risked so much are too. And even on the darkest night, those stars shine brightly. They light the darkness. Even when there are too many clouds to see them, they are still there. Doing what they do. Shining their light into the darkness. Even during the day, when our sun, their cousin, shines so brightly it overshadows them, they still send forth their light.”

“That is the point, my son. We all have that choice. To shine our light or to cower in the darkness until it overtakes us. Because without that night, without the darkness, you would never see their beauty. Your beauty.”

“Does it make a difference, though?”

“Do you make a difference?” Ryan hated how the man always saw through things to the heart of the matter. “You did tonight. You saved those women. Two cartels are destroyed.”

“Others will take their place.”

“And the darkness will come again tonight. But those stars will keep shining. And you will, too. Because that is who you are. You and your woman will raise that little one to burn brightly in the darkness. And together with others, you may never push back the darkness completely, but you can make this world a more beautiful place.”

“You know once upon a time, your people used those stars to sail the great oceans. Even as far as this land. That is the power of those stars. To draw us and guide us with their light through the darkness.”

Ryan wanted to believe this man. But sometimes, he felt that he had seen so much darkness, spent so much time around men like the McBrides and Garcias, that he had lost his way. “Then, let us finish up here. Tell that man what he wants to hear. And go home. Back to your light, my son.” Grandfather placed his hand on his shoulder and led him back to Tyler and the others.

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