***A small town just across the Mexican border***
Will watched Mercy dance about the little cantina around the corner from their hotel. She had slung back three shots already, and their lunch had not even arrived. They could have probably made it to Torreon, but he had insisted they stop, get something to eat, and spend the night in a hotel. The posh chain ones were out of the question since they would require a credit card and ID. But he had managed to find a decent one. Well, it had a good bed and clean sheets. But the best part was the walk-in shower room.
Their journey across the border had been surprisingly easy. It took them less than two hours to reach the remote section of the border that he planned to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico. He had not been sure what to expect with the increased tensions along the border. His information was a couple of years old, and he had feared that vigilantes on one or both sides would now patrol this section. But it had been clear. The river was relatively shallow at that point. So, they had ridden the Duchess straight across. Of course, his boots had gotten a bit waterlogged in the process. They were still a bit damp, but they had dried out enough overnight for him to wear them now.
That damned magic bag of Mercy’s had come in handy. He had no idea how much money was in it, but she had paid for the hotel with some of the cash. The older woman who answered the bell in the middle of the night had looked at their dirty clothes skeptically. Until Mercy spoke to her in near-perfect Spanish. The large tip she insisted on leaving, for the woman’s trouble, had helped too.
They had both been so tired that all they did was strip and fall into bed. Mercy had set the alarm on her phone for ten. They needed to get their bodies back on a day schedule. As odd as it sounded, there had been something reassuring about waking up next to Mercy, hot, sticky, and with morning breath. It added an element of ‘normal’ to a relationship that had begun as anything but.
She had rushed to the bathroom with that magic bag and come back wet, clean, and with minty breath. Will had to admit he was a bit disappointed. He wanted her just as she was, not feeling like she had to do any of that stuff for him. But when she smiled and said, “Your turn,” he had returned the courtesy.
He had made his shower incredibly quick. Thankfully, the shower gel she left was not some sweet-smelling shit. But what to do about a toothbrush was a problem. He had stared at the man in the mirror, contemplating how just a couple of days ago, such things had not mattered because he had not planned on living long enough to care.
Now, living was all that mattered. Getting them into Torreon and Diego Garcia’s compound, finding his cousin, and getting all three of them out alive. But he knew the chances of that were infinitesimally small. So, he wanted to cram as much living with this woman into whatever time he did have. Then his priority was getting Mercy and Bebe, if they managed to find her, out alive.
He had ended up using his finger and the toothpaste that Mercy had also left by the sink to at least freshen his morning breath. He had been afraid that she would be dressed and ready to go but was pleasantly surprised to find her naked on top of the sheet. His cock had come to immediate attention the moment he saw her fingers between her legs. He had smiled, “Here, let me help with that.”
He had spent the next hour with his face buried between those sweet thighs. He had lost count of her orgasms. But he craved those pleading whimpers and moans that she emitted. Finally, he had given into them, sliding up her body sinuously slowly until he buried his cock in her well-prepared depths.
Hell, sitting in this almost full cantina, his cock half-hardened at the memory. When they had come together, it was nearly an out-of-body experience; it felt so good. It had taken several moments for either of them to find the strength to move. Then, Mercy returned to that vibrant, bubbly personality that he knew covered her insecurity and fears. That was why she was tossing back those tequila shots, too.
He was afraid, also. Fearful of losing her. Will played over their options in his mind one more time as he lifted the bottle of beer. His eyes never left her, chatting away with a couple of guys at the bar. The men could not take their eyes off her in those tight jeans and t-shirt that stretched across her magnificent tits.
Maybe he should be jealous, but he watched how she acted with them, like one of the guys. And if they dared to come on to her, she shot them down in a friendly way. How many other men had she done that to? He still was humbled by her words, that he made her feel things more deeply than Mr. Darcy.
He wanted so badly to have a real future with this woman. To grow old with her the way his grandparents had. Even to have children with her. Fuck, they should have bought condoms in that little Pharmacia where they got his toothbrush and body lotion. Sure, maybe it was closing the barn door after the horse got out, but perhaps not.
Not that he would not love for her to have their child. But now was not the best time. He did not want to leave her to the life of a single mother, the way she had been raised. And he sure as hell did not the added complication of worrying about losing his baby as well as the woman he loved. They would stop there again on the way back to the hotel. He would make sure.
She laughed at something one of the men said as she tossed back yet another shot, then licked the salt from the back of her hand and made that funny face as she sucked the lime. She looked in his direction and smiled, saying something to the men, then walking towards their table in the corner. She took a seat and smiled as she thanked the waitress for their food. She waited until the woman left, then whispered as she raised her fork, “Those men work for Diego.”
Why that surprised Will, he was not sure. Just a few miles from the border, this town would have people from several of the cartels. But the idea of her being so near men like that bothered him. What bothered him more was that he had not gotten the sense of evil from them. Was that because they were just mules, doing whatever they could to support their families? Or was it that he had been so distracted by her that it had overridden his special senses? That was something they could not afford. “What did they say?”
“Nothing much. I just mentioned that we were headed to Torreon. That I had family there, the Garcias. When I mentioned Diego by name, Rico, the younger one, just laughed, but Juan suggested I be more careful about what I said. Damn, I’m hungry.” She dug into the carne asada, alternating it with the carnitas.
“You weren’t joking when you said you liked your meat.”
Will almost choked on his taco when Mercy’s hand disappeared under the table and gripped his cock through the tight leather pants. “Oh, I most definitely like the taste of meat. I think it is my turn to sample some when we get back to the hotel. So, hurry up and finish your food, City Boy.”
He was in no mood to argue with such wisdom. He was shoveling the last taco into his mouth when he noticed the older man that Mercy had been talking with looking at them as he spoke softly to the younger one.
Will’s head throbbed. His vision blurred, and they were in the alley where he had parked the Duchess. Both men were there, too. There was blood. But he did not see whose. Mercy was calling his name.
“Will! Will, are you okay?”
He shook his head, trying to clear whatever fog remained. He had gotten used to his knowings. But this was nothing like that. Hell, it was probably just his imagination. Or his fears were working overtime. Still, in this situation, better to be safe than sorry.
“Are you almost done? We should head back to the hotel. Get some more rest.”
Mercy frowned, “I thought we’d go to that little market we saw in the square. Maybe buy you some new clothes or something.”
He shook his head as that sense of foreboding increased, “I don’t think that’s such a good idea right now.” Maybe they should forget staying another night at the hotel? Hell, perhaps, they should turn around, head back across that border, and north into Canada.
But as much as he wanted to keep his woman safe, he knew they wouldn’t. They couldn’t. Any life they built like that would be marred by self-loathing for having chosen personal safety over Bebe’s life and the lives of others. Instead, he watched as the two men left the cantina. Mercy finished off the bits of the asada. Will could not have forced anything past the lump in his throat if his life depended upon it. Something was not right. He could feel it.
Just not the way he was used to. And whether it was because this was something new or some other crazy reason, he did not like the weird zing of power he felt coursing through his body. It felt uncomfortable. Like his whole body was as tight and irritating as those leather pants when he had a hard-on. As if something wanted or needed to break right through his skin. That alone was terrifying as fuck.
***Federal Building, Houston, TX***
Jaycee Ranger rubbed her lower back. The over four-hour drive from Grandfather’s ranch to Houston had not helped her body that was already feeling the effects of her late-in-life pregnancy. Although these days, she supposed plenty of forty-year-old women had babies. Just that a year ago, she would never have thought she would be one of them.
Sneaking a peek at her husband sitting beside her in the dark wood and leather waiting area, she could feel Rex’s worry for her and the baby. She reached over and gently squeezed his hand, offering a smile when his gaze met hers. “We’ll be fine.” He nodded, but she felt his anxiety nonetheless.
“Ms. Ranger, Mister Tyler will see you now,” the young man, whom Jaycee guessed was an intern, or perhaps J.T.’s personal assistant, smiled at them.
Jaycee felt the twinge as she tried to rise from the leather sofa. She was grateful for the hand that Rex held out for her. Graceful, she was not. At thirty-four weeks and wearing the one maternity dress that she had bought, just for these rare business meetings, she was more worried about getting up without giving them all a show. With Rex’s assistance, she managed that, just barely.
They followed the man into an office that looked very much like the waiting area. The man she had known since that first year of law school sat behind a mahogany desk that would have dwarfed her. Behind J.T. hung the seal of his office, the eagle with an olive branch clutched in its outstretched talons and resting on the red, white, and blue shield.
Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur – The one who wishes to rule must follow her justice. Though much was wrong in this nation, she believed that this man still believed in the purposes of those words. That justice was always aimed at the emancipation of humans from the bonds of slavery. If she had not, then they would not have made this trip.
Jaycee took stock of the man who rose from behind that desk. There was gray at the temples of his short, dark blond hair. And more than a few lines crisscrossed his forehead, she supposed J.T. had more than his share of worries and concerns to frown about. The lines around his mouth were just as deep. However, he had not let his athletic build go to fat.
She almost burst out laughing when she felt the jealousy emanating from her husband. She looked over at Rex, ‘A girl can appreciate what’s on the menu, even if she is completely full from her delicious dinner.’
Rex did not smile as he replied on their mate link, ‘Where is your faulted equality, Nʉ Sʉmʉ? You almost scratched that poor waitress’s eyes out for flirting when we stopped for lunch, and I was not even assessing her….’
Jaycee knew that Rex made a good point, and they would take it up later. Their conversation halted when J.T. came from behind the desk and took her hands in his. “Jaycee, what has it been? Five years? More?”
This man had not been the U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas when the whole Sean thing had happened almost a year ago. So, he was right. The last time they had met was some political function that her ex-husband had demanded she attend with him. She noticed his eyes drifting to Rex at her side.
“Yes, it has been a long time. I’m sure you’re aware that Sean and I divorced a few years ago?”
He nodded his head and glanced down at the floor, “Yes, and I’m sorry about his death. He might have made some wrong choices, but that is not how I would have wanted things to end.” J.T.’s smile was tight when he finally met her gaze again. “If you’re here to discuss the release of any marital assets, I’m afraid I can’t help you with that….”
“Actually, that is not why I’m here. But I’m getting ahead of myself. J.T., I’d like to introduce my husband, Rex Ranger.” The men shook hands and did that whole he-man thing of staring one another down.
J.T. shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “Well, Jaycee, I don’t want to be rude, but I am pretty busy right now. I am trying to finish off a few things before my flight to Los Angeles.”
She lifted her eyebrow, and the man continued, “No, this one is personal. My baby brother is getting married. And the great Marianne Buford Walker Tyler is not pleased with his choice of bride. She has demanded that the family show in mass – to express her displeasure.”
Jaycee remembered her one encounter with the woman. Not that things had ever been that serious with J.T., but his mother had made sure he knew that Jaycee was not an appropriate choice. This mysterious bride had her sympathies.
She glanced at the young man who stood by the side of the desk, “I won’t take long, but I think you’ll want to hear what I have to say. In private.”
The lines on his face deepened even more as he studied her for a moment. “Can I ask what this is about?”
“McBride,” Jaycee allowed the single word to hang in the air.
“I’ll call you if I need anything, Trent. And would you make certain that my wife and the children are on their way to the airport, please?”
The younger man looked over his shoulder as he left. She could see that he was not pleased to be dismissed so quickly. She wished that Angel or Grandfather or this new guy Will were here. She wanted to know if he, too, was a part of the conspiracy.
J.T. waved to the burgundy leather chairs across from his desk as he returned to his own. “Have you remembered anything else then? Something that your husband or McBride said?”
She felt Rex tense at the use of that word in reference to Sean. She remembered the conversation that she had overheard between Rex and his cousin yesterday morning. Yes, as good as things were, they still had shit they needed to settle between them. And most of it was her fault. But right now, they had other business to attend to.
“No, I’m here on behalf of a client.”
“A client?” Those lines were back around his mouth and forehead.
“Yes, Laura Reynolds.”
“Laura Reynolds is your client?” Jaycee nodded her head as he continued, “Then, you are here to negotiate her surrender into federal custody for questioning?”
“No? Jaycee, need I remind you that there is a federal warrant for your client as a material witness?”
“No, but need I remind you, J.T., that your witnesses are not fairing too well?” Jaycee could see by the frown and slump of her friend’s shoulders that she had scored a direct hit. She used the small window that surprise gave her to launch her case. “Laura gave birth four days ago. She’d like to live long enough to see her daughter grow up. And we both know that you have a leak in your organization. Probably a few of them.”
“Where is she?”
“Safe. With her baby’s father guarding them.”
“That doesn’t tell me a dang thing, Jaycee.”
She knew J.T. was flustered when the man pseudo-cursed. “And I don’t intend to. Not about where you can find my client.”
“Then, why come here?”
She held up a USB reader, “Because you want this.”
“What is that?” She noticed his ears turning red and knew that his anger was building.
“That is an email that Laura was blindly cc’d into on her final day. And the encrypted file that was attached to it.”
“So, what? Who’s the email from and to? Who sent it to her?”
“It’s from Stewart Childress to Gerald and Stephen McBride. But Laura does not know who sent it to her.”
“Why didn’t your client come forward sooner with this information?”
“Because your federal agent walked into her office and fired her as she opened it.”
“If that’s the case, how did she end up with copies of the email and files? Weren’t those confidential work products and the property of McBride Industries?”
“You’ll have to work your way around that one if you want to get whatever is on here admitted into evidence. That’s not our problem. But to answer your question, Laura was working on her personal laptop and had not booted up the company computer yet that morning. So, the file was downloading when Agent Ranger walked in.”
That frown deepened even more, and she knew that Tyler was trying to put some pieces of the puzzle together. She was happy to supply those, “Yes, Ryan Ranger and my husband are cousins. That’s how I came to be involved with Laura Reynolds.” J.T. shook his head as she continued, “Ryan is with Laura and their daughter now.” She dropped the bomb and waited for its impact.
***Dark alley across the Mexican border***
“Are you almost done? We should head back to the hotel. Get some more rest.”
“I thought we’d go to that little market we saw in the square. Maybe buy you some new clothes or something.” There was some tension in Will ever since he snapped out of whatever that was. Some sort of spell or something. She wanted to question him more about it. But perhaps this was not the place. She was reasonably sure that her two friends were not the only ones here on Diego Garcia’s payroll.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea right now.”
Now he definitely had her curious. Mercy nodded as she finished chewing the last bite of meat. It had begun to taste like burnt rubber the moment she saw that blank stare come over Will’s face. She had sensed something was off with the two men from the moment she approached the bar to order the beers.
At first, she had dismissed it as her writer’s imagination. Not every Mexican was involved with cartels and crime. Most were as hardworking as those north of the border. They wanted the same things that Mama had: a roof over their family’s heads, foods in their children’s bellies, and to be safe from bad people. She figured that was the same the world over.
But the moment that younger one, Rico, had saddled up next to her, brushing against her shoulder and invading her personal space, nausea had welled up in the bit of her stomach. It was all she could manage to fight it down, smile, and scoot over a bit, out of his reach. He had bought that first round of shots. And the next two. Mercy was glad that she had always been able to hold her liquor.
Well, except that first time when she and Jack were ten and had snuck a couple of beers out of the back storeroom at the casino without his grandfather or Laura finding out. They had hidden them for a couple of days, then gone back to drink them. They had both thrown up later. Of course, they had gotten into real trouble when it smelled like alcohol.
Thankfully, she had learned to hold her liquor in college. She could usually drink most of the guys under the table. This time was no exception, but she had the good sense not to let these men know that. Instead, she had giggled like some silly girl. She had even stumbled a bit for good measure. That was probably why Juan had not taken her remarks about Diego Garcia more seriously. Or had he? She had noticed the two men texting on their phones, looking over at her and Will, and whispering before they had left the bar. Was something up?
She reached for the backpack that sat at her feet under the table. She patted the front pocket. The feel of hard steel was reassuring. Though, she worried a bit. This shooting men was not as easy as it seemed. Looking at the doorway, Mercy had the premonition that she had better learn. “Let’s go.”
As they walked out of the cantina, she could almost feel eyes upon them. Or was that paranoia? Her damned writer’s brain? Whatever it was, she stuck close to Will’s side as they walked a couple of blocks back to the hotel. He was as quiet as she was, though. Did he sense something, too? Or maybe he was just looking forward to her second attempt at a blow job?
As they passed the alley where the Duchess was parked, Mercy thought she saw shadows, some movement. She put her hand on Will’s arm and stopped. He looked over at her as she motioned with her head towards his motorcycle.
He shook his head, “You stay here. You hear me?” There was an urgency in his voice that was chilling.
Mercy wanted to argue with him, but something about his tone made her stop. He was the one with training, after all. She was the one who had only managed to wing the ‘good’ sheriff. So, reluctantly she nodded as he slipped down the alley, keeping to the shadows.
Though it was early afternoon and the sun shone brightly in the sky, the three-story buildings lining the streets made the narrow passageway appear much darker. Not quite like night, closer to twilight or dusk. It was enough, though, to hamper her view. She was tempted to follow him down the path.
But she did not have the chance. A hand roughly gripped her arm, and something hard poked into her side. If that were not bad enough, the rancid breath that smelled like a mixture of raw sewage and a vat of MD 20/20 sent her stomach spiraling towards disaster once more.
Rico leaned even closer and licked the side of her face, “Miss me, chica?”
It was instinctual. Mercy gave no thought to what happened next. She did not have the time to wonder if that was a gun pressed into her back or if this man would pull the trigger. No thought at all went into leaning forward and emptying her stomach of its lunch. It had tasted so much better going down. She did not even notice that most of it ended up on the man’s shiny snakeskin boots. But she could not help but feel the pain that sliced through her cheek as Rico backhanded her.
Mercy stumbled backward and fell against the hard ground. She was careful to keep a tight hold on her backpack, though. It was like déjà vu, all over again, as she slipped her fingers into that front pocket and flipped the safety off her Smith & Wesson .380 EZ.
“You’ll pay for that, puta.”
“Paràle con tus pendejadas,” another voice came from the shadows. A moment later, Mercy saw Juan push Will towards them. The man held a gun in his hand pointed at Will’s back.
Will’s eyes met hers. It was like some funny unspoken communication. But Mercy knew just what to do. The moment that Juan stepped closer to Will, Mercy pulled the gun. She did not hesitate this time. She pointed it at Rico’s knee cap and fired.
Will burst into action at the same time, his booted foot connecting with the other man’s jaw. And once again, he dropped like that bag of horse shit at Willard’s Feed & Seed. This time Mercy did not miss. Her bullet shattered Rico’s lower leg. She never had much of a stomach for blood, but there was no point in dry heaving since it was already empty.
Will reached down and picked up the gun that Juan had been holding. He pointed it at Rico as he approached the man who was writhing on the dirt passageway. The blood was spurting from the wound, and she fought another wave of nausea.
“Give me one good reason I should not kill you both right now?”
Rico whimpered and rolled over to look up at Will, “Por favor, please….”
Will nodded his head towards her, “Toss me one of your t-shirts.”
She reached into the bag, pulled out the dirty one she had worn yesterday, and threw it to Will.
“Keep your gun on him while I use this to stop the bleeding. Shot him if he moves at all.” He knelt on the ground beside the man. “Hand me your fucking phone. And unlock it.” Whether the man was in too much pain or feared for his life, he followed Will’s instructions. Will quickly wound up her shirt and applied it as a tourniquet just above Rico’s injured knee.
Mercy’s hand trembled a bit as she realized he would never walk the same. At best, the young man would limp for the rest of his life, if he did not lose the leg altogether, or even die from blood loss. Damn, this shit was more complicated than those paper targets had been. She wondered if the man had a wife or girlfriend? Children? Parents who depended upon him?
Once he thought it was secure enough, Will stood up. He took a photograph of Rico’s leg and another one of Juan lying unconscious on the ground. His jaw was purple and swollen. It even looked to be at a bit of an odd angle.
Mercy kept the gun trained on Rico though the man looked too weak to do much of anything. She looked around for the weapon that he had held in his hand. It took her a moment to find it hidden in the shadows a few feet from the man. She relaxed a bit when she saw that it was well out of his reach. Will seemed to be emersed in that phone. “What are you doing? Shouldn’t we get the hell out of here?”
He nodded, “Yeah, just give me a minute.”
“What’s so damned important?”
He smiled at her as he looked up. “I was just sending your big brother a message. Letting him know that little sister is on her way.”
Mercy shook her head, “Is that a good idea? Don’t we need the element of surprise?”
“I’m betting we lost that when these two were texting in the cantina. But if we don’t have that on our side, I’m thinking a bit of braggadocio may work in our favor.”
“So, what did you say?”
“I just told Diego that you had already run into three of his ‘friends,’ and you weren’t impressed with how he treated familia. I included the pics of these two for good measure. And mentioned that we would be seeing him shortly.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I do, too, sweetheart.” He climbed onto the Duchess and started the engine, “We should get out of here before the policia arrive.”
Mercy walked over and picked up Rico’s gun, sticking it in the backpack. Then she climbed on the back of the motorcycle behind Will, wrapping her arms about his mid-section. The moment she leaned her head against his back, a calm spread over her. Not merely did her brain quiet, her heart that had been racing slowed. Her breathing became more steady; even the trembling stopped.
She had no idea what was happening to her. First, that weird second sense about these two, now this. But she would deal with that shit later. Right now, she just wanted to enjoy this tranquility with Will in her arms.
If she was going to die, she wanted to live every single moment she had. Instead of just surviving like she had until the moment, her dark knight rode up on his shining Ducati Scrambler 1100. Damn, the man had good taste. Except in music, but his Country Girl would fix that.
***Federal Building, Houston, TX***
Rex watched the man’s face. He knew that Ryan and this Will guy both believed this man was clean. One of the good guys. But life had taught him something else as well. Sometimes ‘good’ people did the wrong thing, sometimes even for the right reasons. Even Jaycee admitted this guy was a stickler for procedures. And Rex knew that his politics were not always on the ‘right’ side, not when it came to the interests of the common person. Could someone like that be trusted?
Rex had learned the hard way that he could not always trust even his instincts when it came to sniffing out evil. But he could not allow his pregnant wife to face this man alone. And he knew how important this was to her. Jaycee knew something this man did not, might not ever know. Justice and the law were not always on the same side.
He remembered when their bond was new, before he got tired of all that legal mumbo jumbo, and taught her how to erect mental barriers. ‘Justice was for the strong.’ But his wife did all that she could to defend the rights of the weak, the poor, and the abused. He knew that sometimes that battle was hard for her. So, the least he could do was stand beside her, especially now.
The man tented his fingers in front of him. “Stephens told me that Ryan was on leave, some family emergency.”
Jaycee snorted and shook her head, “Well, I suppose protecting your newborn child and her mother from unknown bad guys and federal investigators with a leak is a family emergency. But you should know that he resigned. Conflict of interest since he is involved with a potential witness. Wonder why Stephens didn’t tell you that?” Rex smiled at how she planted seeds of doubt without directly accusing the man of any impropriety.
“Why are you here, Jaycee? If not to arrange the peaceful surrender of your client, what possible business do you have the US Attorney’s office?”
Her smile broadened at those words. Rex knew that it was the opening his wife was looking for. “My client was not privy to the things that Gerald and Stephen were involved in, as with most of the other senior management that you have investigated. And as soon as she realized that the contents of this email might be of interest to the investigation, she is willing to surrender the USB to you.”
“Why do I feel a but coming, Jaycee?”
“I’m not sure I would call it a but. Laura will hand over these files. She will even be willing to testify how the information came into her custody if this comes to trial. In return, she and Ryan are asking that you drop the material witness warrant that you issued for her arrest.”
“Why would I do that? How do I know that she does not have other information that she is withholding? For that matter, how do I know she was not involved? She was engaged to Stephen’s best friend for two years. Stewart Childress disappeared, too, you know. No, I want to question her. Under oath.”
“Not happening. Not now, anyway. You’re a father. Would your wife have been up for being arrested and interrogated for hours less than a week after giving birth? Have you become that heartless, J.T.?”
Rex barely managed to stifle the chuckle as the man shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He knew that Jaycee would not relent. Nʉ Sʉmʉ was a strong advocate for the things that she believed in. It was one of the things he loved most about her.
“Here’s the offer, J.T. I give you these files now. You get your forensics team on them; try to decrypt them. In exchange, you rescind the warrant. In a few weeks, when Laura is up to it, you alone may meet with Laura to take her deposition. On neutral ground, some public place of our choosing.”
“Dagnabbit, Jaycee, you know I can’t do that.”
“And you know that you can, J.T. You are the lead investigator. The federal agents answer to you, not the other way round.”
The man thumped his tented fingers against his lower lip as he stared at Rex’s mate. “How do I know that the information in those files is worth it?”
“You don’t. Hell, we don’t. But this is all my client knows about anything. Other than some questionable land deals, but you have already been down that rabbit hole. As much as she and Ryan truly do want to help, this is all she has. Is it that unreasonable, J.T.?”
More thumping as silence filled the austere office. Jaycee pushed harder, “I know this is a career-making case for you. But I also realize this is about seeing that justice is served. I admire that, J.T. But would it be justice for Chloe Ranger to grow up without her mother? An innocent woman whose only mistake was working for the wrong people? And you know I’m right. You know that you cannot guarantee Laura’s safety.”
He shook his head, “We found the leak. The agents that allowed McBride to escape. One of them is in federal custody now.”
Rex looked at his wife. Their gazes locked for a moment before she spoke, “One? Do you believe that there is only one leak? In a case this big, with that kind of money involved?”
“Do you know something we don’t, Mrs. Ranger?”
“Common sense and suspicions. Who can you truly trust, J.T.?”
The man sighed, and his shoulders slumped, “Honestly, I’m not sure I know anymore.”
“Then, please, do the right thing here. Give an innocent woman time to recover and bond with her child. Don’t put her life in danger for this case, especially since Laura Reynolds cannot tell you one damned thing more than I have today. Do the right thing, J.T.”
He nodded his head slowly, reluctantly. “But I reserve the right to reissue that warrant, if necessary.”
“But before you do, you’ll call me and allow me to surrender my client into safe hands. Of our choosing.”
“What aren’t you telling me, Jaycee? What do you know?”
“As I said, I can’t prove anything. Some of it comes down to personal history. I know that you are aware of the incident between Laura’s sister and the sheriff of Sebida County.”
He nodded his head without saying anything. “Did you send Kerr after her? I wouldn’t have thought you would resort to such underhanded tricks as witness intimidation.”
“You know I can’t comment on an ongoing federal investigation, Jaycee.”
“Fair enough. But be aware, the Reynolds family has long-standing issues with the ‘good’ sheriff. We would not be pleased for him to insert himself further into the situation. I can assure you that none of the parties involved remain under his jurisdiction.” Jaycee continued, “As does Ryan Ranger have professional issues with his former supervisor Stephens. We would appreciate it if the nature and content of this meeting remain confidential for that reason.”
“You’re asking me to keep pertinent details from my primary investigator, Jaycee?”
“Let’s just say that the timing and circumstances of his promotion are suspicious. To my knowledge, there were no suicides, accidents, or missing evidence during his predecessor’s tenure?”
Rex beamed with pride at the sly cunning of Nʉ Sʉmʉ. Ryan’s suspicions and ‘that feeling’ of this unknown Will were not evidence. But he had spent enough time with Grandfather to know that his were not the only type of ‘gifts’ in this world. His cousin’s ‘golden gut’ had proven itself time and again. And Ryan seemed to have faith in the other man as well; that was good enough for him. But not for this man. Or Jaycee’s court of law where you were supposedly innocent until proven guilty.
“But I’m sure that you know your people better than I do,” she smiled. He would not have wanted to be on the other end of that smile. He lived for Jaycee’s smiles, but not this one with its subtle hint of superiority. “So, do we have a deal, J.T.?”
The man was silent for a long moment as he met Jaycee’s gaze, then he nodded, “Yes, as I said, for now, at least.”
“The way I see it, I did you a favor, one less witness for you to worry about protecting,” she passed him the USB stick.
“I’ll want that laptop, too. I need our forensics team to go over it. See if there might be other files.”
“I understand. We’ll bring it to the meet. But for now, it might be prudent if that evidence, as well as Laura Reynolds, were in other hands. I’d hate for something like that to disappear from the evidence locker without a trace. Before the files could be decoded.”
“This way, we get the information from the files without endangering the evidence itself?” The man smiled, “After your baby is born if you want to go back to law full-time, give me a call.”
Rex frowned; he could not help it. Whether it was the idea of Jaycee taking a job that would mean a move away from the ranch or working with this man with whom she shared so much history, he was not sure. Then he felt her gentle touch as she laced her fingers through his and squeezed firmly.
“Thanks, J.T. I know what a compliment that is, but I have the best of both worlds. My time is my own to control and the clients of my choosing.” Jaycee began to rise from her chair, but Rex noticed how hard that was. He stood and gently tugged her hand until she stood by his side.
The other man held out his hand, and Jaycee released his to shake it. “The way you make that sound, maybe I should come to work for you.”
“Or maybe you should give some thought to being your own master?”
Tyler only nodded, but Rex knew those words were more profound than he realized as the man turned and shook his hand too. “I’ll see you both out.”
As he opened the door to the reception area, Rex noticed another man in a dark suit. His graying hair impeccably styled, “Stephens, I don’t remember that we had an appointment?”
The man shifted his considerable weight from foot to foot, “We don’t. I just thought that we should touch base on things. Since you will be out of town for a few days.”
Rex saw Tyler frown and knew that those seeds of doubt that Jaycee had planted were germinating. “You have something new, then?”
The other man shook his head, “No, I just thought….”
Jaycee smiled as she turned to her old friend, “I’ll be in touch.”
Rex placed his hand at the small of her back, and his finger gently massaged the spot that he could feel was bothering her most as they turned to leave.
“Was that Riley’s widow? What was she doing here?”
“She’s an old friend from law school. She just stopped by to say hello while she and her husband are in town. But since you are here, Stephens, I have something you can do. Rescind the warrant for Laura Reynolds’ arrest.”
“What? But I thought….”
“I gave an order, Stephens. I don’t have the time or inclination to discuss it further. Just do it.”
Nʉ Sʉmʉ was beaming by the time they closed the office door behind them. “Pretty sly little fox, aren’t you?”
“I’ll need to be,” her brows furrowed. “Do you think it was just a coincidence that the man showed up just as we were leaving?”
“What are you saying?”
“Just that if this is one of the cartels, that’s big money. Enough money to buy off lots of people. Doesn’t it make sense that they would have moles in more than just the feds? Like the U.S. Attorney’s Office too? Maybe even the McBride defense team? We don’t know who we can trust.”
He felt the weight of responsibility on those tiny shoulders as he began once more to massage the stiff muscles in her lower back. He had been feeling her pain for days. “I know that I can trust you, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. And our little band of co-conspirators. But right now, sweetheart, I have other things in mind.”
She smiled up at him weakly, and he felt the strength draining from her body. “What did you have in mind?”
“It is too late to head back now. You have spent over four hours cramped in the truck already today. I propose that we find a hotel, order room service, soak in some posh ass tub big enough for both of us, and I massage these knots out of your back properly. We can head back home tomorrow.”
“Or the next day?” Jaycee leaned into him and allowed him to be strong when she was weak. Knowing that there would come a time when he relied just as heavily on her.
***Garcia compound outside of Torreon, Mexico***
Mercy’s hands were damp and shook slightly. Her heart raced like a Mariachi band playing in her chest. She breathed deeply, reminding herself that she chose this. “Good evening, big brother. You didn’t need to send an escort.”
She assessed the man in front of her. She was not sure what she expected a cartel leader to look like. Maybe she had watched The Godfather one too many times, but there was a distinct lack of heavy gold chains, a flashy white suit, or a machine gun with Diego Garcia. Though, one of their ‘greeting party’ had carried an automatic weapon.
They had been met at the gate by a black SUV with six heavily armed men. Surprisingly, they had not attempted to disarm them. Well, until they got to the house. If this place could be called that. A compound was more accurate. Or maybe a fortress. Mercy could not even tell how big the place was.
Set outside the city itself, the road leading to the house was at least a mile long through a carefully landscaped driveway with trees on both sides of the road. That road ended in a circular driveway with a colossal marble statue of what looked like a saint of some sort with her hand extended. Water flowed from that hand into a fountain below.
Behind the fountain was a pinkish adobe wall at least twenty feet high. The center section of that wall was three stories high with a massive double door of heavy, rough-hewn wood, reinforced with black iron hinges and bars across them. The handful of windows that faced outward all had black wrought iron bars across them.
The moment that she and Will got off the Duchess, they were surrounded. Her heart started that song then. Two men had approached her, and three were on Will. While the man with that automatic gun stood by the car with it pointed at them. They had been patted down. All their weapons were seized.
That was the moment it hit her. Their total vulnerability. The fact that neither of them might walk out of here alive. It all became real at that moment. Her legs had become incredibly shaky.
How did she get here? Less than a week ago, she was a small-town librarian, making only a bit more than five hundred dollars per month after taxes and writing trashing romances in her spare time to supplement her paltry income. Oh, and a stereotypical virgin one at that.
Now, she faced down one of the world’s biggest crime lords. She studied her half-brother more closely. Though not tall at all, he was powerfully built, perhaps only a couple of inches taller than she was. While there was a layer of cushioning, beneath that, Diego Garcia was muscular. He had graying at his temples, and enough lines creased his dark skin to show his age.
Dignitas. What a strange word to apply to a drug dealer who likely dabbled in human trafficking, prostitution, and pedophilia. But there was some inner strength or reserve about the man which belied his chosen profession. What worried her more was the apparent intelligence in those almost black eyes as they studied her just as keenly. Diego laughed. It was a booming sound that echoed even in the open air.
When those heavy doors had opened, they had been led down a dark corridor with more of those thick wooden doors on either side. The paintings of saints and mirrors on the wall were oddly macabre. But it was the shrine with flowers, candles, and a weird statue of some woman in long robes with her hands templed in prayer that seemed most odd. At least to the granddaughter of the Methodist preacher, who had only been into the Baptist church a handful of times. Even then, Laura only took them to Vacation Bible School for the free lunches that those church ladies served as part of the thing.
The thing was much more ornate than the altar at what was now Brad’s church. However, she had been in it only twice, once when Elena wanted to see the young preacher who kept coming to their home and then for their wedding. The very idea of having some altar or shrine in your home seemed weird to her. But then again, this whole thing was strange, including Will’s gifts. Hell, that shit seemed to be rubbing off on her, and that was weirder still. Mercy’s attention turned to the booming voice.
“You wound two of my men, maiming one for life, and tell me that I did not need to send guards? What do you want?”
She had to admire the man’s direct nature. Then again, you did not stay at the top of an organization this size by luck alone. “Three. I shot two of your men, and Will injured the other. Though I suppose Sheriff Kerr was a joint deal. I shot him, and Will knocked him out.”
“Sheriff Kerr?” His English was near perfect, with barely a hint of an accent.
So much for being direct, “Yeah, he’s the reason I’m here. He mentioned you when he came to arrest me. So, I figured it was time I got to know the other side of my family.”
An older woman, heavily set with short curly hair and piercing black eyes like the man’s, spoke, “No tienes familia aquí.”
“Ignacio Garcia doesn’t live here?” She answered in Spanish as she stared the woman down. She could see so many of the woman’s features in Diego. This must be the wife that her sperm donor had left behind to be with her mother. The hatred and vitriol of an abandoned woman were etched into every line in her face.
“Babosa,” was the woman’s answer. Mercy knew she was a smartass, but being called an idiot by this woman rankled.
“What business do you have with my father? I am sure that your sister told you the man is not well.”
Mercy nodded and turned towards her half-brother, “Yes, Elena did. Which is part of it. I never met the man. I was not even born when he left. This may be my only chance to get to know my father.” She forced that word out and hoped her acting skills were sufficient to cover the disdain she felt for the man who had sired her.
Diego nodded and shrugged those broad shoulders, “So some morbid curiosity about a man you admit you never knew is the only thing that brings you to my home now?”
Mercy had known this moment would come. Did she try to bluff her way through? Deny any other reason for this trip? Or did she admit the trouble they were running from? Trouble that very well might have originated with this man.
“Things are a bit tense back home right now. It seemed like a good idea to get away for a while.” The half admission left the door open to discover just how much this man already knew. He did not disappoint her.
“That is why you bring a federal agent to my home? Because your big sister did not know how to keep her nose out of things that did not concern her and brought trouble down on your family? Don’t lie to me, cabrona. This is about more than getting to know a dying man who most days does not even recognize the familia he has. You came here hoping that I would help you.”
Mercy shrugged, but she had bested enough of the bullies in school to know that you did not flinch. She stared him directly in the eye, “Maybe. I thought familia would mean something to you.”
“Familia?” The woman spat on the ceramic tile floor at her feet.
“Mamá, escuchemos a la señorita.” The woman did not want to hear her son suggest they listen to what Mercy had to say.
“Mátalos a los dos Mijo y ya.” Like Pontious Pilot, the washing of her hands’ movement punctuated this woman’s meaning.
Diego laughed again, though this one was not as easy or free. “Let’s not be so hasty, Mama. Murder is so messy.”
He turned to her, “Sorry, you and your sisters are a sore point with my mother. But she does have a good point. Why should I not kill you y tu amigo federal?”
Will knew it was coming. That question always did with people like Diego Garcia. He had faced that damned question more than once when he was undercover with the narcotics squad. But he was supposed to be playing dumb. They had decided that it was best if the Garcias did not realize that he spoke Spanish. Perhaps they would say something around him. Of course, if Diego knew that he had been a federal agent, what else might the man know? But for now, it was best if they stuck with the plan.
Will was a bit surprised when the guy holding the automatic weapon slid closer to Diego and Consuela Garcia. He knew precisely who the woman was. The backbone of the Garcia cartel for over three decades. The youngest child and only daughter of General Carlos Sanchez, one of the founding members of Los Zetas, and the man, going back at least as far as the 1960s, responsible for trafficking a large percentage of drugs into the US.
When a rival gang had killed her older brother Juan Carlos in the mid-80s, El General had taken to his bed distraught. His other son Manuel refused to give up his calling to the priesthood. It had been Consuela who had grabbed the reins of power, rebuilt the devastated organization, and held on until Diego came of age.
Of course, no woman could be seen to lead such an organization. So, Consuela had carefully set herself up as her father’s nurse, as a good daughter should. She crouched all her orders as the General’s. The old man had died just weeks after Diego’s celebrated his twentieth birthday with the mass murder of those responsible for his uncle’s death.
Even after almost three decades in power, the woman remained her son’s primary advisor. Few things were done by the Garcias that had not first been run through this woman. It was rumored that she had a curandero or even dabbled in the dark arts of witchcraft. Will could believe it. Her spirit was darker than her son’s.
He watched the younger man whispering with them. He tried to catch even the stray word here or there but was too far away to hear anything. But whatever it was seemed to inflame the woman as her son nodded his head and turned back to them.
Will risked a quick glance at Mercy. He could not suppress the smile. He could feel that she was frightened. Hell, as many times as he had faced this very thing, he always was too. One day it might not go his way. But his woman stood tall, and she stared them down. Her head high and her shoulders back.
She glared directly at Consuela Garcia. He saw the woman shift nervously and watched as she made the sign of the cross, “Hija de su puta madre.”
Whatever else she might have said, Diego shook his head. “So, hermanita, you get into trouble across the border, and you run to me, claiming familia? What did you think? That I would just embrace you? You have had over fifteen years since you came of age to seek out your Papa. I’m just supposed to believe that now you are interested in Ignacio Garcia.”
Mercy stared at the older woman, “Elena said we were not welcome. So, no, I did not think to come before.” She shrugged, “If it’s a problem, we’ll just keep going. Torreon isn’t the only place we can use our skills.”
“What skills?” the man laughed. “Writing trash? Organizing books on shelves? Oh, you didn’t realize that we kept tabs on your familia? Of course, we have.”
That funny feeling was back. The haze rolled in from the sides, and suddenly Will was transported. He stood huddled with the Garcias. Each word they spoke was clear.
“¿Qué haces Roberto?” Consuela demanded.
The younger man shifted from left to right, his eyes traveling between the woman and Diego. “Solo escuchame, Diego.” But in Will’s mind, the words were clear, “Just hear me out, Diego.”
“Mas vale que sea Bueno.” “It better be good,” answered the man that Will knew held the power of life and death.
Roberto nodded, “Sabes que otra enfermera renuncio hoy, y mientras papá siga empeorando no podemos mantenerlas mas que unos dias.” “You know another nurse quit today? Since Papa has gotten worse, we can’t keep them more than a few days.”
“Y tu papá, que tiene que ver con esto, hijo?” What does your father have to do with it, demanded Consuela.
“Se que tu….. Mamá, no tienes tiempo… pero talvez, o sea Ella es su hija tambien.” “I know that you… Mama, I know that you don’t have time to… But maybe, I mean, she is his daughter, too,” stammered the younger man.
Diego smiled and cuffed him on the side of the head, “Sabes esa no es una mala idea, hermanito.” “You know, that is not a bad idea, hermanito.”
The woman’s face contorted into a mask of hatred and bitterness. “Y yo te dije que los mates, Hijo.” Kill them, the woman demanded again.
“O lo haré, pero roberto tiene la razón Mamá. Acaso eso no es justiciar? Que la hija de esa mujer limpie su mierda? Que le escupa comida o que la muerda como a las demas?” “Oh, I will. But, Roberto is right, Mama. Isn’t it justice? To see that woman’s daughter clean Papa’s shit? Have him spit food on her or bite her as he does the others?”
The woman shrugged, but her features softened just a bit. “De todos modos, digo que los mates. Podemos traer a una de las chicas del prostíbulo. Tal vez a esa provocadora o instigadora.”
Diego shook his head, “No esto es mejor. Tu venganza contra Ella. Que su hija trabaje como mula, cuidando a su padre, que nunca conocio. Papá no vivira para siempre. Y cuando se myers, mataremos al agents, y mandaremos a “hermanita” al prostibulo. Para una mujer como Ella eso es peor que matarla.” “No, this is better. Your revenge on that woman. For her daughter to slave away, caring for the father, she never knew. Papá won’t live forever. And when he dies, we kill the agent and send ‘little sister’ al prostibulo. For a woman like that, it is worse than death.”
Will staggered. His head felt like it would explode. His stomach threatened to revolt and empty itself of their mid-day meal, all over their expensive tiles.
“What’s wrong with him? You had better not have brought that sickness to my house, hermanita.”
He felt Mercy’s arms about his waist. He looked up into those warm brown eyes. How had he not noticed the green flecks before? He shook his head, trying to clear it. Now was not the time for this. On the other hand, whatever was happening seemed to give them insight and warning.
“He’s fine. Will gets these headaches, spells. That’s all it is. Give him a moment, and he’ll be fine.”
“Maldita! Te dije que no era una buena idea. Traerás una maldición a esta casa, hijo,” the old woman crossed herself again.
But whether it was a bad idea, and they were cursed or not, Diego held out his hand, “Enough, Mama.” He turned back to them.
Will’s head had cleared enough that he could stand on his own, at least, but he did not let go of her hand. Whatever was to come, they faced together. But if this man thought he would send his woman to a whorehouse, it would be over his dead body. And the dead bodies of most of the men around him. He hoped it would be enough to give her time to run. Though Will was not sure, that was possible from a man like Diego Garcia.
“You want my help, little sister? My protection?”
Mercy shrugged, and half nodded, her back tall and her head high. At least she realized that showing any kind of weakness to these people was a mistake. Perhaps a lethal one.
“Then it will cost you. I own you now. Do you understand, hermanita?” Will could hear his mother’s vitriol spilling from Diego’s lips as he called her that.
Mercy looked to him, and he nodded just slightly. They would talk later. Or at least he hoped they would get that chance.
“I’m sure the other one told you, Papa is not well.”
“Yeah, Alzheimer’s, dementia, or something like that.”
“Ese bastardo está maldito, recibiendo lo que merece por….” Not that Will blamed the woman for her hatred or finding comfort in believing that her husband was getting what was coming to him.
“Mamá,” Diego shook his head as he glared at the older woman.
Consuela nodded, Will knew that she would not dare countermand her son in front of the others. But he was confident the man would get an earful once it was just the two of them. Honestly, this woman was more dangerous than her son or her brother and father had been. The grudge and hatred she held for Mercy’s family made that even more deadly.
“Papa needs round-the-clock care now. And the nurses? They are not so reliable. If I let you live, it is to care for your Papa. Do you understand me?”
Mercy nodded. He was glad that she seemed to know better than to say anything more. At least now.
“He’ll still need a night nurse, but you care for him during the day. You feed him. Give him the pills that the doctors say. And you clean up after him. Do you understand?”
“I’m not a nurse. But yeah, I can do that.” Mercy stared at the woman, “Growing up poor, we all learned to cook, clean, and take care of one another.”
The two women seemed locked in their own pissing contest, glaring at one another without speaking another word. Will was more than a bit shocked when the infamous Consuela Sanchez de Garcia looked away first. The woman once more made the sign of the cross and mumbled something that sounded a bit like ‘the eye.’
Diego turned to the younger man, “I don’t want them here. Set them up in one of the houses in the village.”
The younger man nodded as Diego turned back towards them. “And little sister, be here early. Don’t think of running. There is nowhere that you can go that I won’t find you. Oh, and agent, that applies to you, too. I own you now. Roberto, find something for the man to do.”
Will knew that whatever of Diego’s shit he was cleaning would be far worse than caring for an old man. Blood in, blood out was the creed of men like Diego Garcia. He just hoped like fuck whoever they sent him to kill was not an innocent. If they weren’t? Well, he would have to figure that out damned quickly.
But right now, they had survived this initial showdown. The next step…see what they could discover about Bebe. And figure out a way to get the three of them out of here before that old man died. Like the man said, where the hell they could run that Diego Garcia would not find them was another question.
That was all for another day. For now, they should savor this small victory. He squeezed Mercy’s fingers and smiled at her, “You did good, country girl.”