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Brush with Death

J. MISHA DUNN

BRUSH WITH DEATH

AN ANDREW BRUSH NOVEL

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission from the copyright owner.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

This book was printed in the United States of America.

1

 

Tensions Rising

 

His already forced concentration began unraveling as the unrelenting bursts of thunder rattled his office window.

He leaned back in his chair, resting his right elbow on the armrest, his chin between his thumb and forefinger.

Increased frustration with his recent change of posts had clouded his perception. From altered work shifts to the demands of additional assignments, he knew he was barely treading water.

His eyes darted to the wall clock. It was as if somewhere deep in his subconscious, he was struggling with something he had told himself was not his fault.

“It’s a quarter to five,” he whispered, his stomach churning. “I don’t have much time.”

With the stress of the workweek coming to a close, his noticed his attention shifting on to more pressing, personal matters.

As Special Agent in Charge of the Dallas Field Office, Eduardo had learned early on to compartmentalize.

However, given the severity of the situation at hand, he found himself unable to prevent his mind from wandering.

What should have been a flawless operation had begun fraying at the seams. Events were spiraling out of control, long hidden secrets near exposure. A decision had to be made.

In less than two hours’ time, blame would be laid, a war underfoot. Eduardo knew in order to keep his own life, innocents would lose theirs. It was no longer an option. The dreaded worst case scenario had become his only move.

“You must maintain punctuality,” he mocked. “Yes, well how am I supposed to be on time when I still don’t even have the address?”

He checked his phone—-still no text.

“Maybe if the bastard trusted me with the malditos direcciones already, I would be able to gauge my time more accurately,” he mumbled.

He sat up in his chair, adjusting his posture as a means of redirecting his thoughts onto finalizing the report.

He was skimming the document one final time when the long awaited text arrived. Having placed so much effort into forcing the night’s looming rendezvous out of his mind, he flinched at the vibration.

Wiping the nervous sweat from his brow, he performed a clean sweep of the office before removing the phone from his pocket.

His paranoia still unsatiated, he walked over to the interior window. Delicately raising one of the off-white, plastic slats with his forefinger, he gazed into an empty bullpen.

Assured he was, in fact, alone, he flipped open the phone. Upon entering the decryption key, the previously encrypted message appeared in plain text.

It is about time, he thought, as he copied the hotel address into his GPS before returning it to his briefcase.

“At least now I know when I must depart,” he said, quickly printing his report, leaving it for in the morning.

Ensuring all evidence of his involvement was either on his person or in his briefcase, he turned the lock, giving his office one final once-over before securing the door behind him.

“I must hurry,” he said, as he departed the parking garage in his government-issued SUV. “For Carlos, to be late is to be dead.”

The hotel exit within sight, Eduardo glanced at his watch, only to realize the trembling of his hands had intensified. His primal fear was no longer controllable. The device ensuring his true emotions remained buried, hidden was crumbling.

In a panic to regain composure, he accelerated toward the rendezvous point, tightening his grip on the steering wheel in the process.

Coming up on the hotel parking lot, he abruptly veered onto the shoulder. Closing his eyes for a brief second, he took a deep breath and crossed himself.

“I’m not going to leave this meeting alive.”

 

~

 

A victim of the recently re-routed highway, the hotel had been left behind to deteriorate, fading into near non-existence.

Located on what used to be the sole route into the city, it now rested on the outskirts; access limited to the derelict service road.

Switching off his headlights, Eduardo slowed his speed, turning in beside the flickering, partially lit sign. He killed the engine.

As he stepped out onto the gravel lot, he reached underneath his seat for his firearm. Securing it in his side holster, he cautiously approached the rotted door.

The one remaining hinge screw loosened as he twisted the knob. The door fell to the ground, the impact softened by the stained, sticky, pale green carpet. Resting it against the entryway the best he could, he proceeded inside.

The air was thick, the stench a mixture of stale cigarette smoke and fresh body odor. With the entire room lit by one bulb dangling from the ceiling, Eduardo unsnapped his holster.

“If you are attempting to place me at a disadvantage, I assure you, it is not wise,” he hollered, reaching across the desk to turn on the lamp.

Maintaining a grip on his sidearm, he set about inspecting the room. He was preparing to clear the walk-in closet when he noticed the front door in a different position than he remembered leaving it.

Removing his firearm from its holster, he stepped into position. “Identify yourself,” he ordered, advancing toward the entryway.

“Very well,” replied Carlos, his sight set on the back of Eduardo’s head.

Eduardo spun around. “How did you—”

Carlos nodded to the man behind Eduardo.

Before Eduardo could react, the man gripped him by back of the head and thrust him headfirst into the wall, securing his weapon in the process.

“That will be all,” said Carlos. “Leave us.”

 

~

 

“Explain to me why you waited,” he asked, reclining in the desk chair, his right leg crossing his left, a glass of scotch balancing on the narrow armrest.

“You know better than that,” Eduardo replied, maintaining a standing position near the exit, his voice shaky.

“What I know,” continued Carlos, pausing for another sip of his scotch, “is that you waited to inform me until the entire take was seized.”

“Carlos, I—”

“Five billion dollars—gone,” he whispered, staring at the empty glass in his hand, “simply because you failed to identify the breach in our operation.”

“This operation is yours. I am not responsible.”

“You were tasked with one job: to find the leak.”

“The man you call Haiden, your investment broker, he is one of my agents. His name is Andrew Brush.”

Carlos reached for the bottle. “This man means nothing to me. Los Tres Diablos will take care of him within the week. Let us discuss the return of my money, and our heightened operational vulnerability.”

He filled his drink before standing. “In simpler terms, why should I keep you alive?”

“Without my access, my clearance, you will never see your money again. Nor will you be able to gain the upper hand with Agent Brush.”

“Your inflated sense of self-worth is foolish. El Diablo needs nothing from you.

“We could just as easily burn the operation to the ground, eliminate the collateral and make up the difference in next year’s profits.”

“Tell me, what happens when word gets out that Carlos was duped by a simple-minded law enforcement agent? The perception being that you were too afraid to retaliate? What happens then?”

“Be very careful what you say next. I have killed men for less.”

“Carlos, with my clearance, I can ensure your money is returned to you. Brush will become the fall-guy. He will lose everything, and we will walk away scot-free.”

“Minimal upfront cost, light to medium risk; the thought is tempting, but I am not yet convinced.”

“What more do you need to know? Cutting and running is a coward’s game. Agent Brush needs to understand with which whom he is dealing.”

Carlos hurled his drink at Eduardo. Narrowly missing his head, the glass shattered upon impact with the wall. “Let us not forget whose job it was in the first place,” he replied, his voice rigid, “whose ignorance and incompetence led us to this point.”

“Brush is crafty,” he replied, wiping the glass shards from his hair, “obviously your team lacks in comparison. None of this is my problem, or fault.”

“We will see about that once Víctor is informed. I have a feeling he will share in my perspective.

“I was brought in far too late and you know it. Brush was already deep inside El Diablo when you called. This rests on you, ese.”

Without hesitation, Carlos executed a precision strike to Eduardo’s esophagus with the ridge of his left hand. Securing a tight grip on Eduardo’s throat, Carlos removed his Glock 45 from his side holster and thrust him against the wall.

“You are over,” he said, sliding the cold, steel silencer into Eduardo’s mouth. “I have put up with your careless mistakes for the last time.”

Carlos rested his thumb on the hammer. “No one crosses me and lives to speak about it,” he continued, the definitive sound of the pullback sending chills down Eduardo’s spine. “I have an operation to run, respect to demand.

“I will not put up with this behavior any longer. Any last words before I put a bullet through your neck?”

While trying to claw Carlos’ hand from his throat, Eduardo managed to mutter a few syllables.

Carlos removed the gun from his mouth and pressed it against his temple. “What?”

“You didn’t let me finish,” he sputtered, his voice a whisper. “I have a plan already in motion. It is fool-proof, airtight,” he choked.

Carlos tightened his grip on Eduardo’s throat, slamming him back into the wall. “Why should I believe you?”

“Because Brush has a daughter,” he replied, gasping for a breath, scrambling for his sidearm, only to discover an empty holster.

Carlos lessened his grip. “Continue.”

“Amber Brush is fifteen years old. The moment I realized it was him, I put a detail on her. The wife was a little trickier to tag, so I bugged the home.”

“How long ago did you initiate protocol?”

“Two weeks of data proves tomorrow night is our best chance. We must take her then.”

Carlos slowly released his grip on Eduardo’s throat, returning his gun to its holster.

Stepping over to the dresser, he poured two glasses of scotch.

“Tell me more,” he said, handing Eduardo a drink.

Eduardo intentionally positioned himself on the corner of the bed closest the exit, Carlos across from him on the desk chair.

Sitting in silence, staring at one another, he began to discern just how in over his head he really was.

What in the hell am I thinking, engineering the kidnapping of the daughter of an FBI agent, he thought.

Carlos will kill her without hesitation if Brush doesn’t cooperate, not to mention the torture she will endure in the process.

Based on their track record, he knew the severity of what they were capable. The unimaginable acts of violence he himself had witnessed, and even committed growing up.

“I must say, this is a new low, even for you, Carlos,” he said, in an ill attempt to divert Carlos’ attention.

“This is a lower-end establishment, but having developed this protocol in partnership, I assumed you would have a greater appreciation of it.”

“I do, but this place is filthy, and paranoia is an unhealthy trap.”

“Paranoia, vigilance—without it, Brush would have us all in jail right now.”

“This is true.”

“And Víctor believes your assignment to be too valuable. Precautions must be adhered to. I happen to strongly disagree with the value of your current post, and you in general.”

“Never meeting at the same place twice is agreeable, but this place must be taken out of rotation. Think more five-star, and less by the hour.”

“I will consider it. Now, tell me about this plan of yours.”

“Not until we discuss the protocol under which we meet. Texting the address two hours beforehand is unacceptable. The cartel is capable of better than this.”

“That is enough,” Carlos hollered. “Quit stalling and tell me about the girl.”

“This I would understand if the threat were imminent. However, it is clear to me your team conducts a thorough investigation before contacting the hotel.”

Carlos placed his hand on his holster.

“And the complications involved with closed caption television? Having to rent adjoining rooms with staggered arrival times is ridiculous. You—”

“Do you think this is funny,” interrupted Carlos. “Our entire operation is on the line. I do not believe the stakes could be higher.

“So, either aid us now, or when this is over, you will find your position among the collateral damage.”

An overwhelming sense of nausea enveloped Eduardo as thoughts and images of Amber’s certain fate began racing through his mind.

“I can’t do it,” he blurted, standing to his feet.

Carlos sneered. Setting his drink aside, he stood. Stepping forward, he gripped Eduardo by the nape of the neck, wrenching him in close.

For a brief second, Eduardo considered defending himself before quickly surrendering, knowing full-well resistance was futile.

“You do not have a choice in the matter,” Carlos said. “A successful abduction of this magnitude might earn you your life. Not to mention the depths you have descended. You back out now, I will kill you.”

Bursting into laughter, Carlos released him, the force of the backhand strike thrusting Eduardo onto the bed.

“Or perhaps a package could be delivered to the FBI. How many years does a compromised SAC get these days?”

Eduardo wiped his lip, “I am bleeding,” he whispered, gazing down at the blood on his hand.

“This is only the beginning. Continue with this behavior and your puta will be next. For your escuincles though, I have a set of red ties,” he laughed, turning to top off his glass.

The distress Eduardo felt was unlike anything he had ever experienced. With a weighted demeanor, his suit in disarray, he stood, re-tucking his shirt into his pants before returning to a seated position.

“Very well,” he sighed. “I will tell you what you want to know, but first, I will need a drink.”

Carlos handed him the bottle.

“The logistics of the plan is as follows:” he continued, downing the rest of the scotch.

Carlos smirked. “Assimilating into the law enforcement profession has weakened your objectivity.”

Eduardo shot at him an icy glare. “As I was saying: the girl owns a vehicle. Passengers are strictly prohibited, therefore she always travels alone.”

“Excellent,” replied Carlos.

“She upholds impeccable grades and attendance.”

“What is the relevance of this?”

“Due to her academic obsession, her day extends beyond the typical seven thirty to three thirty. She arrives at six forty-five, not leaving the library until five.”

“What do you make of the excess time?”

“The girl is preparing for a standardized exam. It is scheduled for the day after tomorrow. I believe this to be the sole reason for the extended hours.”

“Where is the vulnerability, the kink in her schedule?”

“It is tomorrow night. She—”

Eduardo paused.

Carlos again rested his hand on his weapon, gesturing for him to continue.

Eduardo closed his eyes, the guilt resurfacing, as not even the hardest of liquors could alleviate the shame for the sins committed that evening.

“I am listening,” Carlos said, his sharp tone yanking Eduardo from his mental nightmare back to his current one.

“Friday night is exam-cram-slam, as the girl calls it. Her evening will be spent at her friend’s house. When she departs at eleven, we will be waiting to intercept.”

“Her never returning home will raise immediate suspicion,” Carlos replied, the vocalized thought more disconcerting than before it was spoken.

“I believe this to be the best course of action, ensuring your money is returned, your reputation intact, untarnished.”

“The abduction of the girl and subsequent framing of this agent must occur quickly and be executed seamlessly. No loose ends.”

“There is only one road to the residence. Neighbors are scarce and the path ill lit. I believe this to be the perfect abduction point.”

Carlos smirked. “In what manner would Agent Brush become informed of the abduction?”

“I am certain his keen sense of awareness will work to our advantage. He will ascertain the truth, do not worry.”

“I want him to know I am the responsible party, that his double cross has cost him everything.”

“Understood,” replied Eduardo, reaching into his pocket for his keys. He stood. “I—”

“Your duplicitous nature is impressive,” interrupted Carlos, advancing toward Eduardo.

Eduardo nodded.

“You once were a valuable member of the organization. You have fallen far, but redemption is within reach. Show me you have what it takes, and I will see about getting you transferred to San Juan.”

“Thank you, Carlos.”

“But,” he continued, “the moment your usefulness ceases, is the moment—”.

“Threats are unnecessary, Carlos, and unappreciated.”

“You are pathetic,” he replied, motioning for his guard to re-enter the room.

The thick cloud of tension looming over them abruptly dissipated with the shrill ringing of Carlos’ phone.

Applying pressure with his left index and forefinger, he slid the phone off the desk into his right hand. “Hello,” he answered, never taking his eyes of Eduardo.

Briefly paralyzed by the stern nature of Carlos’ glare, Eduardo stood motionless, awaiting further instructions.

“This is not over,” he said. “We still have much to discuss. Do not forget whose life is on the line. If you fail in the retrieval of the girl and my money, disappear, because you will be hunted.”

Eduardo tried speaking, to refute the arrangement, to defend himself, but his words had escaped him; terror had rendered his voice less than a whisper.

“What is it now,” Carlos asked, yelling into the phone. “I am doing business.”

He signaled for Eduardo to leave.

“I will text you with a new location, and do not be late,” he whispered, his hand covering the mouth piece.

 

~

 

Thursday evening, Amber arrived home from school at exactly 5:17. “Two minutes late,” she whispered, checking the time on her phone. “If I push hard on the math and let up on the science a little—”

The exploding burst of thunder disrupted her thoughts, the prelude to an all-out downpour.

“Hey, mom,” she said, enabling the speakerphone.

“Did you get caught in the storm?”

“Yeah, just pulled in the driveway. I forgot my umbrella in my locker.”

“Very nice.”

“”Be in in a sec,” she replied, tossing her phone in her backpack before bolting toward the front porch.

“So, how was your day,” Kelly asked, greeting Amber at the front door with a towel.

“It was good,” she replied, wrapping the towel around her shoulders, emptying the contents of her backpack onto the kitchen counter.

“Let me throw those in the dryer for you,” said Kelly, reaching for her drenched hoodie and backpack.

“I wish I could’ve taken the whole day off to study, but—”

“I know, but you’ll do fine, Am.”

She shuffled over to her mom, hugging her from behind. “I love you,” she said.

“I love you, too.”

“So, listen,” continued Kelly, a slight grin present on her face. “Since we both have a ton of homework to do, I stopped and picked up a box of refills for the coffee maker and the chili is warming on the stove.”

“Crackers or garlic bread?”

“Garlic bread, of course,” replied a smiling Kelly.

They laughed.

“Well, I suppose you’ve convinced me to eat dinner before I get consumed by the last study guide,” she said, skimming the table of contents. “I really need a rest.”

“I do have a little surprise,” said Kelly as she filled their bowls with chili.

“And what’s that,” asked a curious Amber.

“It’s sort of a pre-celebratory foodstuff.”

“And what are we celebrating?”

“How well you’re going to score.”

“I won’t know my score for like six weeks. You know that, right?”

“I don’t care if it’s six months. We’re celebrating.”

“Okay, you weirdo,” laughed Amber. “What is it?”

Kelly opened the refrigerator, showcasing the items like a model on a game show.

“Vanilla bean fro-yo and root beer, my favorite.”

“You deserve a treat, to lift your spirit.”

“Thanks, mom, but just a small one. I need to stay awake to study, not go comatose.”

Kelly chuckled.

 

~

 

She always kept diligent in maintaining a close-knit relationship with Amber, much more so after the separation. As the one who initiated the action, she felt obligated to ensure Amber’s life remained as unaltered as possible.

For Brush, the differences often hindered even the slightest relationship growth. As he poured more of himself into closing the ever-widening gap between them, it never failed that situations would arise, thrusting him deeper into his career, and proportionately further from his family.

Despite all gestures, in the end, he fell short. The immense love he felt for his family never could outshine his career.

Unconvinced their circumstances would ever change, after six long years, Kelly walked out.

In spite of all her promises of the measure being temporary, Brush knew his marriage was over. His work had finally consumed his entire existence, regurgitating the shell of a man he once was.

Left broken and alone, his only solace came with his work. Channeling his grief, he re-opened a cold case, and began hunting down those responsible for his mother’s deadly assault all those years ago.

Working around the clock, carefully balancing assigned duties, while quietly investigating an unauthorized cold case, he became obsessed, losing himself in the pursuit of justice.

 

~

 

Dinner was a meal they shared together every evening without fail. It was Amber who insisted on it, that it kept them close, an element of their everyday life, a time to cherish.

With much on the horizon, conversation was sparse that evening, the pressure of approaching deadlines weighing on their minds.

“Why don’t you go on upstairs, honey? I’m just going to quick throw these in the dishwasher.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure,” replied Kelly, smiling as she wiped down the countertop.

With her books in hand, Amber turned to the stairs.

“Goodnight, mom, I love you.”

“I love you too, Am.”

After putting on the coffee, Kelly laid her syllabus on the counter, pulling up her design plan from her laptop. It was the capstone project for her master’s degree.

Tasked with creating an original design product, she had then been required to develop the documentation, guiding the product from inception through launch.

Having an established career in marketing, not product development, the creation and design phases proved laborious.

Through bouncing ideas off of Amber, she had begun researching the plausibility of a cell phone application that critiqued hair, makeup and outfit based on a snapshot of one’s self.

By configuring the application with a pre-determined set of the most current, popular styles, the software package would then update weekly, consistently aligning itself with the market trends.

 

~

 

In 2002, Kelly graduated with her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Advertising Design from The Art Institute of Dallas, landing a job at a local design studio.

After a successful three years of employment, she moved on to V&ML, a multinational telecommunications corporation, the third largest in the world.

Obtaining a position in their corporate communication department, she was tasked with liaising between top management and marketing.

Assisting in the preparation of advertisements for products and communication with the media, she often found herself nearly as busy as the man she walked out on.

In late 2011, she returned to the classroom. Maintaining her position, she enrolled in evening courses, working toward a Master of Arts in Design and Media Management, from which the capstone project originated.

By mid-2013, she had earned a promotion to Marketing Manager. With her first masters all but attained, she set about pursuing a MBA, with an end goal of one day holding the title of Director of Marketing.

 

~

 

No matter how intently she studied the words on the page, she could not, for the life of her, get her mind to focus.

“Come on, concentrate,” Amber said aloud, “what is wrong with you, tonight?”

Frustrated, she sat her book aside and pulled her diary from under her pillow. I only have eleven more hours to study before the exam, she thought.

Five tonight, two tomorrow after school, and four with Amy; I’m not sure I can pull this off. Saturday has come quicker than I had imagined.

Grabbing a pen from her nightstand, she opened her diary. I wish dad were here, she wrote. He would have had something to say to make me feel better.

Brush’s eighteen month absence was taking its toll. And even though he moved out years prior, his presence was felt, as he always ensured participation in the most vital aspects of her life.

Dad’s always been here, she wrote, teaching me how to change the oil in my car, switching a flat, & his obsession with self-defense. I really miss him.

In two days, it marks a year-and-a-half that he’s been gone, she continued. I wonder if he even knows I’m scheduled for the ACT. I don’t know how he could.

Browsing through old entries, she was reminded of little phrases and bits of wisdom he offered during similar circumstances. She gained comfort from these. With a fresh confidence in herself, she smiled and closed her diary.

Situating her books on her nightstand, she crawled into bed, turning off the light in the process.

Resting in the quiet darkness, she closed her eyes and whispered a short prayer for him, that he would be safe, that she would see him again soon.

Then, she drifted off to sleep.

 

~

 

At 12:23 a.m., nearly thirty miles from the previous hotel, Eduardo arrived in downtown Dallas. Bolting from the cab, he raced up the walk.

Turning back, he tapped on the roof, cramming a few bills through the partially opened window.

“My apologies, sir,” said Eduardo.

“Yeah, you better pay,” replied the driver, “lifting his .38 special from the passenger’s seat.”

“This vehicle may be under your control,” said Eduardo, “but the Texas Penal Code Chapter 46 Section 2 prohibits you from having your gun in plain sight.”

“The midnight crazies such as yourself rarely pay. I’m just making sure I get what’s owed, Mr. Lawman.”

Once inside the hotel, Eduardo read his watch.

“12:28, damn it,” he whispered, repeatedly pressing the elevator button.

The text from Carlos said to meet on the twenty-sixth floor of the Cornelius Hotel at 12:30 a.m. in suites 2601 and 2603.

“There is no way I will make it,” continued Eduardo, “and the last thing I need is an angrier Carlos.”

By 12:33, the meeting was underway, his tardiness ignored. Their encounter was brief, the message clear.

In less than twenty-four hours, Carlos was going to abduct Amber. With a team already en route, the countdown had begun.

“My money will be returned to me,” said Carlos, staring out onto the city, his back to Eduardo.

“Who did you bring in for the job,” asked Eduardo.

Los Tres Diablos,” replied Carlos, his expression a combination of hatred and satisfaction.

“We agreed upon an abduction,” stressed Eduardo, “not a massacre.”

“There will be no massacre.”

“Juan may be your familia, but he is also loco. Do you not remember what he did to those chicas in Nuevo Laredo?”

“I remember.”

“Look, Carlos, I understand Brush infiltrated your operation. That is humiliating, I know, but Los Tres Diablos is not the right call if you are planning to return—”

“The girl?” interrupted Carlos. “You still think I am going to return the girl? She is the least of my worries.

“Once my money is returned to me, Juan’s orders are to execute her. She will be the first in a systematic eradication of everyone for whom Agent Brush cares.

Taken aback, Eduardo stood speechless, his expression blank.

“Agent Brush will pay,” whispered Carlos, turning to face Eduardo. “Los Tres Diablos will see to it.”

 

~

 

Woken in the middle of the night, and unable to return to sleep, Amber did not hesitate in making good use of her insomnia by studying until exhaustion won over.

Inadvertently falling asleep at her desk, it was not until her kitten flopped beside her and began nibbling on her nose that she was roused.

“Is that you, girl,” asked a drowsy Amber.

Precious purred as she rubbed up against Amber.

“What time is it,” she asked, glancing over at the clock.

“Seven thirty,” she shouted. “No way. I can’t believe this.”

In a panicked run, she raced down the stairs, stopped by a note on the counter next to her dry backpack, her books already packed.

Calm down. I phoned the school. You are excused from 1st period. Rest is more important right now. Not going to penalize you for your focus.

Love you ~ Mom

Amber smiled.

Tossing her backpack on her shoulder, she snagged a banana nut muffin with her free hand and hurried out the door.

 

~

 

“Where’s it at,” she whispered, sifting through the contents of her locker, books and papers scattered everywhere.

“Um, you okay,” asked Amy.

“Do I look okay,” she replied, papers now falling out of her locker and into the hallway, her mind fixated on the upcoming exam.

“Your Advanced Chemistry text is right there,” said Amy, pointing to the book on the top shelf.

“I know that. What I need is AP Spanish.”

“No, what you need is to chill out. You can share with me. You know Mr. Ginda doesn’t care. And what’s up with you today anyway? It’s Friday, be happy.”

“Sorry, just stressing over this stupid test.”

“Me too, but you need to relax and trust yourself. You have studied a ton more than most. You’re going to score exceptionally high, and you know it.”

“Thanks, I—”

The clang of the warning bell interrupted her.

“Come on,” said Amy, “we better hurry.”

 

~

 

Phys. Ed. was Amber’s last class of the day, one she also shared with Amy. The day’s activity: volleyball.

“I know it was only three rounds, but we killed ‘em!” said Amy, high-fiving Amber.

“I have to admit, it did feel good winning for a change,” replied Amber, making her way out of the gym.

“See you tonight at six?”

“I wouldn’t miss it. Need me to bring anything?”

“Just that big brain of yours,” laughed Amy.

“Very funny”

“Listen, got to run, but I’ll see you later.”

“Later,” replied Amber, heading up the stairs to the library.

Best case scenario, I have ninety minutes of uninterrupted study time, she thought. Maybe I can sneak in another half hour at home to make up for all the time I lost last night.

That evening, just like any other, at four thirty sharp, Amber was warned of the time, and by four fifty-five, the librarian was pushing her out the door.

I really don’t like that lady, she thought as she strolled to her car.

Tossing her backpack onto the passenger seat, she hopped into her Sebring.

“She doesn’t have to be rude about it,” Amber said, inserting her key into the ignition, and turning it over.

Nothing happened.

She tried again.

Still nothing.

“Great, just what I need.”

She turned it over again. “Okay, I have a basic understanding of auto mechanics, so I should be able to figure this out. There’s no noise, so maybe it’s the battery.”

In her frustration, she noticed the headlight switch set in the ON position. “What a day,” she said, reaching into her backpack for her cellphone.

Seconds later, a strange man in dirty overalls wandered up from the distant sidewalk.

“Trouble with automobile,” asked the smiling stranger, his English broken, accent Spanish.

“No, I’m good,” replied Amber, holding up her cellphone, “texting someone now to come and get me,” she continued, slightly frightened by his sudden appearance and interest in her car.

Stepping to the front of the car, he tapped on the hood. “Open, I take look,” he said.

“I really don’t think you need to. It’s just the battery.”

He smiled and gave her a thumbs-up. “I fix battery, how you say, all the time. Open up.”

She reluctantly popped the hood.

I must determine the issue and repair it quickly, he thought. If she is unable to drive tonight, how are we supposed to go through with the plan?

“Juan is not going to like this,” whispered Enrique.

“Excuse me, sir. What was that?”

“You are correct, la batería está muerta. I mean, the—”

“I understood you,” interrupted Amber. “My battery is dead. That is just what I told you.”

 

~

 

Enrique occupied the second position as member of Los Tres Diablos. Sent in to ensure all parts of the plan maintained proper alignment was the reason he was tailing Amber in the first place.

“There is nothing I like less than a change in the plan this close to execution,” he whispered, removing a wrench from his tool belt before immediately disconnecting her battery.

“What do you think you’re doing,” asked Amber.

“I take old, get new,” replied Enrique.

“No, you leave it alone,” she demanded.

“But, I—”

“I will call security.”

“Apology,” replied Enrique. “I only try to help.”

Amber spotted Kelly’s Buick entering at the far end of the lot. She sighed, the relief noticeable on her face.

Perfect timing, she thought.

Walking around to the passenger’s side for her backpack, she ordered Enrique to close the hood.

“You okay, honey,” asked Kelly.

“I’m fine. Better now,” she whispered.

“We appreciate your help, sir,” said Kelly, “but you need to leave this car alone. School security has been notified and will be monitoring the lot.”

“Whatever,” replied Enrique, throwing his hands in the air. “I only try to help.”

“What a creep,” said Kelly, speeding onto the highway.

“You’re telling me,” replied Amber.

“He didn’t try to hurt you or anything, did he?”

“You saw him, he could still walk.”

“I am well aware of your ability to defend yourself, but that doesn’t mean you’re invincible. We all have our limits.”

“I am quite familiar with my limits, mom.”

Kelly reached across the armrest. “I’m glad you’re safe,” she said, cradling Amber’s hand in hers.

“You don’t need to worry. Dad has trained me well. Before he left, he promised that when he got back, he would test me for my black belt. He said I was ready.”

Kelly smiled. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Thanks. And I’m glad you worry,” smiled Amber.

A lengthy silence followed. The mention of Brush aggravated deep wounds neither cared to discuss. With his assignment end-date approaching, they could not help but fear for his safety, missing him more than ever.

Deep in thought, Kelly whipped into the driveway, unaware she had slightly overrun the turn. “You ready for tomorrow,” she asked.

“So, we’re going to ignore what just happened?”

“I overshot it a little, it happens now and then.”

“First of all, no. You are the most cautious driver I know. You don’t overrun anything. Second, and I feel it’s worth noting, you nearly took out Mr. Richard’s mailbox.”

“Just had your father on my mind is all.”

“I miss him, too, but you don’t see me tipping cows,” teased Amber.

Kelly stuck her tongue out at Amber.

They laughed.

“Hey, do you think you could give me a ride to Amy’s later,” Amber asked as they walked inside.

“If you weren’t going there to study, I’d be tempted to make you walk,” Kelly replied, smiling.

“Very funny”

“I thought so.”

 

~

 

“Change of plans,” said Enrique, his voiced apprehension unmistakable.

“What do you mean change of plans,” asked Juan. “Where is your location? Explain to me what has happened?”

“I am at the school. The target’s car broke down.”

Usted estúpido hijo de puta,” he yelled, slamming his clinched fist on the desk of the surveillance van parked outside the Brush residence.

Juan retained the titles of founder and leader of Los Tres Diablos. Known for his sadistic nature, his reputation preceded him.

Formerly a one man team, he eventually conceded, becoming a faction of El Diablo. Ordered to increase his numbers to three, he did not hesitate to hire those as inhuman and savage as himself.

As much as he related to his team, his uncontrollable disgust with humanity often resulted in a hunt for fresh blood.

Modeling himself after his cousin Carlos, he committed his first gangland execution at the age of four.

Triggering an inner depravity that rapidly evolved into an obsession, he began preying on the unsuspecting, beyond those ordered by the cartel.

Fixating on seamless abductions and the subsequent removal of evidence, he was dubbed by his peers as El Limpiador.

Perfecting his craft, he isolated himself from the cartel. Taking pride in his victims never being discovered was something the cartel could never understand.

“This was not my fault,” replied Enrique. “She was not frightened by me. Then her madre showed up, informed security of my presence. There was nothing I could do.”

“It is never your fault, there is always something,” said Juan. “Look, you moron, I do not have time for this right now. Get your culo back here now, so we can adjust accordingly.”

Juan disconnected with Enrique, dialing Carlos immediately afterward. The call was routed to voicemail.

“Alterations were inevitable. It seems we may end up with twice the inventory. I have it covered. I will call when it is complete.”

Detecting movement out of the corner of his eye, he directed his attention back to the monitors. Upon zooming, he observed Kelly and Amber conversing. Donning his headphones, he listened in.

“They are leaving now,” he whispered. “It is six-thirty, we have less than five hours. It is show time.

“Manuel, follow them. I want to know everything these images have missed,” ordered Juan.

“What about Enrique?”

“He is nearing the van as we speak. Once he arrives, we will depart.”

Manuel nodded.

The third and final member of Los Tres Diablos, Manuel operated as the driver. The most expendable, yet most vital, he always did as he was told, not once questioning an order.

 

~

 

“We have spent one hour analyzing a seven mile radius around the abduction point,” said Juan. “Are there any questions?”

“Are we certain an intersection two miles east of the friend’s house is the best option,” asked Enrique.

“Visibility is fair, traffic patterns weak. I really do not see much of an issue,” replied Juan.

“I agree,” said Manuel, parking the van off road, out of sight. “There is much distance between neighboring homes. The speed limit is a bit disconcerting, a little slow for my nerves.”

“Eduardo’s report says the police response time is seven minutes, that they come from the west,” said Enrique. “This operation will be a breeze.”

“The second person variable causes me unease,” said Juan, “a sensitivity with which I am unfamiliar.”

“Our masks will make us unidentifiable, yes,” asked Manuel. “Can we not simply leave the second?”

“The stakes are too high,” replied Juan. “I demand we take both, whether it is the mother or the friend.”

“Incentive,” whispered Enrique.

“Keeping Agent Brush in check is crucial. With his daughter off limits, her friend’s finger in a box may be just the motivation he requires,” laughed Juan, closing the file, tossing it onto the dash.

“Where do we exchange this piece of junk for the custom model,” asked Enrique.

“Carlos has it waiting for us at the airport,” replied Juan. “El Diablo recently acquired a new warehouse in the industrial park near the Alliance Airport. It is now the second base of operations in the United States.”

“Black, windowless, and plated in highly angulated steel capable of deflecting high-powered rifle rounds,” said Manuel. “Plastic liners in the tires provide stability in the event of a blowout.”

Juan glared at Manuel.

“I assisted in their development,” he replied.

“Let us go over this one final time,” said Juan. “You know what you must do,” he asked, pointing to Enrique.

“Hide the Volkswagen one quarter mile east,” replied Enrique, removing the keys from the safe.

“It must be exactly where we discussed.”

“Off the road, hidden behind the shrubbery”

“We will have forty seconds to make the switch.”

“I understand”

“Manuel,” asked Juan.

“After the successful transfer, I will return to the industrial park where the van will be trucked back to Matamoros,” he replied.

“Travel back roads, stay in the shadows,” said Juan.

“For sure,” replied Manuel.

“Enough chitchat,” said Enrique. “I am ready to hunt. Let us go capture ourselves a girl.”

 

~

 

“It is 10:47, Amy, and I am beat.”

“Well, I think a four hour cram sesh is good enough. At this point, if I fail, I don’t even care.”

“I know homecoming was a train wreck, but how do you feel about the Sadie Hawkins,” asked Amber, perusing through Amy’s nail polishes.

“Honestly? After what happened, I don’t think I’m going,” replied Amy, shaking a bottle of polish.

“What? Why not? You have to go.”

“Not after the way the guys acted.”

“Oh forget them, they’re losers.”

“I know, but who is there to ask that isn’t a complete jerk?”

“Principal Pemble may have a stick up his keister, but nothing says we have to go with a date.”

“That’s true,” laughed Amber, gathering her books.

“What about your nails?”

“I’m really tired, maybe tomorrow.”

“Sure you don’t want to just crash here tonight? We could ride to the testing center together.”

“Sounds like a blast, but we need our rest. We’ve worked too hard to not finish strong.”

“You’re right. Let me grab my keys.”

 

~

 

By 10:53 p.m., Juan and his team were in place. With the van parked fifteen feet from the intersection, and Enrique in position, the trap was set.

“Carlos will soon have his leverage,” said Juan.

“That he will,” replied Manuel.

“Remember,” radioed Juan. “Alert us when the target is one quarter mile from the intersection.”

“They are backing out of the drive as we speak,” replied Enrique.

“Excellent. Hug the tree line, follow them,” replied Juan, “and put on your mask.”

“I don’t need the mask. They will not live long enough for it to matter,” said Enrique.

“If you do not wear the mask, you will not live long enough for it to—”

“Enough already,” interrupted Enrique. “Get your culos up here at once! They are nearing the intersection.”

With the headlights off, Manuel rolled the van to the stop sign, his timing impeccable.

As the girls slowed to a stop, he continued through the intersection, blocking the roadway.

“What’s going on,” asked Amy. “Drive already.”

“Maybe it just died,” replied Amber.

“Should we get out and see?”

About that time, the side door opened, a masked figure emerging from the van.

“Amy, I think you better back up,” replied Amber.

“Is that a gun,” asked Amy. “Oh my—”

“Now,” screamed Amber. “Go!”

Shifting the car into reverse, Amy smashed the accelerator to the floor.

Fixing her eyes on the rearview mirror, she abruptly slammed on the breaks.

“What are you doing?” screamed Amber. “Drive!”

“I can’t! Someone’s behind us! We’re trapped!”

An AR-15 in hand, Enrique began advancing toward the girls.

“Run,” said Amber, unbuckling her seatbelt.

Rushing from the car, they sprinted for the woods.

“Take the friend,” yelled Juan, closing in on Amber.

Approaching Amy from behind, Enrique struck her in the base of the skull with the butt of his rifle, knocking her to the ground.

With Juan rapidly closing the distance, Amber stopped running and turned to face him. “I’ll fight you,” she cried.

“That would be a terrible mistake, little girl. Just come with me,” he replied, reaching for his sidearm.

“I won’t,” she said, leaping toward him with an explosive right hook.

Deflecting her attack, he countered with a backhand strike. She fell to the ground.

Walking up to her, he struck her a second time before dragging her limp body to the van.

Seconds before speeding away, Juan tossed a crumpled piece of paper onto the driver’s floorboard.

“Come and get us,” he whispered, “if you dare.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2

 

Blast from the Past

 

It was early summer, 1995. Katherine Brush was two weeks into her five week solo nature documentary, out to lay eyes on the rare plethodon fourchensis, while chronicling the reproduction process of the cypripedium reginae.

Equipped with the newly released Minolta RD-175 and two Sony DCR-VX1000s, she had set out for the Ouachita Mountains in Mena, Arkansas.

Discovered by a pair of hikers, at the bottom of a twenty-foot rock ledge, face down in a stream, she was rushed to the nearest hospital.

Alive but unresponsive, the doctors displayed little hope. With no evidence of foul play, the incident had been ruled an accident.

It wasn’t until Andrew pressed the local law enforcement that his world would soon be turned upside down.

“The result of your wife’s toxicology report is in,” said the doctor.

“Let me guess,” replied William. “It was a complete waste of your time.”

“Not exactly. There were high levels of Alprazolam in Katherine’s system. Looking through her medical records, I didn’t see a prescription.”

“What is that, Xanax,” asked William. “She was not on any anxiety medication. Never has been.”

“The amount she ingested was near fatal. Two, maybe three more pills and she wouldn’t have made it.”

“Your report has to be wrong,” interjected Andrew.

“I highly doubt that,” replied the doctor.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that she would wait until halfway through her documentary,” said Andrew. “I mean does that not strike you as at least a little odd?”

“Maybe a little, but I’m not a psychiatrist,” replied the doctor. “I have seen some pretty illogical suicide attempts. What’s going through a person’s mind at that time doesn’t always make sense to us.”

“This was not a suicide attempt,” said Andrew. “My mother would never do this. We have a pact.”

“Excuse me,” asked the doctor.

“A pact to never commit suicide,” interjected William. “To get help before it ever gets that far.”

“I’m sorry,” said the doctor, “I really am. But all I know is what her blood tells me.”

“Look,” replied William, rubbing his forehead, “is there any way we can have her transferred back to St. Louis? I want her closer to home.”

“Not until I learn more about her condition, understand why she is in this coma. Also, I have called in the local authorities. I’m sure they’ll have some questions for you,” he replied, before being yanked away by a nurse.

Andrew pulled his father aside. “Can you keep them out of her room,” he asked.

“Who,” replied William, “the police?”

“Yeah, I want to spend some time with mom. And I don’t want them in there.”

“Of course. And son, don’t worry. We will get through this. No matter what happened out there.”

While true, Andrew did not want the police filling his mother’s room, shouting accusations, he more so wanted the time to examine her gear.

“What could you have possibly gotten yourself into,” he whispered, closing the door behind him.

He was quietly sifting through her things when there was a knock at the door. Re-zipping her backpack in haste, he was close to answering it when he heard his father’s voice. It was the police. Having led them away from her room, Andrew was able to continue his search.

I don’t see any pills—bag, bottle, or loose. But, the police will just make some excuse about how they were lost in the water or that she took them all. There has to be something more, he thought.

He was still inspecting the contents of her backpack when his father entered the room. “The officers are going to gather some of her things. I requested they hold off for a minute. I told them I wanted to say goodnight.”

“I understand. Let me grab my bag.”

With their backs to one another, Andrew discreetly unscrewed her canteen, taking a quick sip. Noticing an unusual bitterness, he slipped it into his bag, hiding it underneath a spare outfit.

Now where is her diary, he thought. She documents everything. It has to be here somewhere.

“You ready, son?”

Andrew reached for her camera. “I wonder if they would let us take this,” he asked. “I would like very much to view her pictures.”

“I doubt it, but I will ask,” replied William, exiting the room. “Excuse me, officers?”

“That’s bizarre,” whispered Andrew, examining the cover of the external storage device. “It’s unscrewed and the memory is missing. That makes no sense.”

“Hello, Andrew,” said Office Griego as he entered the room. “My name is Robert. I will be working your mother’s case.

Andrew stood silent.

So,” continued the officer, “I see you found her camera.”

“The external memory is missing.”

“Probably lost in the fall.”

“No, only the face was damaged. The cover for the memory is intact, but unscrewed. It had to have been intentionally removed.”

“That is very perceptive. Perhaps it’s on her person, or in her possessions. I will let you know if it surfaces.”

“I don’t think it will. I believe whoever did this to her removed it because it contained some sort of evidence.”

“To be clear, you believe someone drugged your mother, pushed her into the water, and stole her equipment,” asked Officer Griego, the condescension regal.

“No. I believe she witnessed something illegal. Then, the criminals discovered her and tried to make it look like a suicide, which explains the drugs in her system and how she was found.”

“You possess quite the imagination. But, it would only make sense that if she were secretly drugged, once the effects became noticeable, she would have rested, and contacted a local park ranger. Not continued searching for bugs and plants or whatever.”

“You’re the cop, you tell me. There aren’t any pills in any of her things; the removable memory is missing, as well as other equipment.”

Maintain control of yourself, thought Officer Griego. This boy is intelligent. He must not pick up on any sense of urgency. If he believes you to be prying, he will clam up for sure.

“What equipment,” he asked, his tone casual.

“All I see is her Minolta digital camera and one Sony camcorder. She took two camcorders, one to record the lady’s slippers asexual reproduction and one to monitor the daily activities of the Fourche Mountain Salamander.”

“You knew much of your mother’s trip,” asked Officer Griego. “Of how much of her planned daily activities were you familiar?”

“I helped her plan all of it. What’s it to you,” asked Andrew, intrigued by the officer’s sudden interest.

“Well, unfortunately,” said Officer Griego, “this is all we found when we combed the area. With no clear sign of a struggle, I am certain she was alone. I believe the only perpetrator here was that of a conflicted psyche.”

“You’re probably right,” replied Andrew, “being the expert and all.”

Laying her camera on the table, he continued. “Listen, it’s been quite a day. I don’t know about my father, but I’m exhausted. So, thank you for your assistance. I’m sure we’ll see you around.”

The walk to the parking lot felt like an eternity.

“What was that all about,” asked William, breaking the silence.

“I don’t think I like that guy,” replied Andrew. “I’m pretty sure he just mocked me for suspecting foul play. No, I’m confident he did.”

“He’s just doing his job, Andrew.”

“No, his job is to find the truth. What he’s doing is brushing this under the rug, accusing mom of trying to kill herself.”

“And why wouldn’t he?”

“’Why wouldn’t he? What is wrong with you?”

“Nothing, I mean he made a compelling argument, that’s all,” replied William.

“A compelling argument? Do you hear yourself?”

“Officer Griego offered his insight, explained to me her thought process.”

“And you bought it? Who the hell is he to explain to us her thought process? He doesn’t know her well enough to determine anything.”

“He simply explained to me that those serious about committing suicide often lack the visible, telltale signs. They internalize. It’s those who seek attention that purposefully alert others to their intentions.”

“So, because mom didn’t say anything to anybody, she absolutely, without a doubt, tried to kill herself? Is that what you’re saying? That sounds like what you’re saying.”

“Calm down. All I’m saying is that maybe she was hurting in ways we couldn’t understand. We need to be sensitive and open to the possibility that your mother is—”

“I’m not going to listen to this,” interrupted Andrew, opening the car door.

“Son—”

”There is no way mom would spend twenty thousand dollars on brand new equipment if she was going to kill herself,” he interrupted.

“She loves what she does. To say this was all planned, that she somehow acquired pills from a drug dealer, assumed Xanax would do the trick, and downed the whole bottle right in the middle of the day is ridiculous.”

“I don’t know,” replied William. “It’s all a bit much to handle at the moment.”

“One thing is certain,” said Andrew.

“What’s that?”

“That officer got inside your head.”

“Son, I—”

“I really don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

The ride back to the hotel was a silent one. It would not be until the following morning as William was packing that Andrew would voice his intention of staying.

“Where are you going? It’s time to leave.”

“I’m not going anywhere until I get to the bottom of this,” replied Andrew.

“We can come back down on the weekend, but work is tomorrow.”

“I already paid the room up for the rest of the week. As for the dead end job at the restaurant, I don’t care.”

“Alright, take care of yourself. Call me if you need anything.”

“See you when you get here Friday night?”

“I’ll call you when I leave.”

Having brought with him a copy of his mother’s itinerary, he knew every stop she had planned to make.

Loading his backpack with granola bars and water, he departed for the mountains.

If I start at the beginning and retrace her steps, he thought, I should be able to find the camcorder and maybe figure out just what happened.

Spending the next six hours making brief stops at each point on her map, he finally arrived at the place where she had fallen.

“I see why she likes it so much,” he whispered, taking a deep breath as the wind roared through the trees.

Tossing his backpack onto the ground, he surveyed the area. She must have been up here for the salamander, he thought.

Little did he know, he was being followed, watched through the scope of a rifle well-concealed behind the heavy brush.

“Have you retrieved the camera,” whispered a voice on a radio.

“I have not,” replied the man hidden in the woods.

“What is the hold up?”

“Someone is here,” replied the man. “Also, I have spent hours up here. There is nothing to find.”

“The boy said she had two camcorders, only one was retrieved. Find the other.”

“Describe to me this boy, his appearance.”

“Five foot eleven inches tall, brown hair, athletic build, twenty-three years old. Why does it matter to you his appearance?”

“You have accurately described the man who is here with me now.”

“The kid is there with you, now?”

“Yes and I believe if I hold my position, he will lead me right to his mother’s missing equipment.”

“Watch him closely. If he leads you to it, kill him. If he doesn’t lead you to it within the hour, kill him. Carlos will not accept any loose ends.”

“I understand, Officer Griego,” mocked Juan. “Leave him to me.”

“What were you doing up here, ma,” he asked.

I know it sounds ridiculous, he thought, but what if she stumbled upon something, like a kidnapping or drugs.

He legged over to the waterfall from which she had fallen. Leaning over the edge, he teared up.

“What in the hell happened up here? I want to believe you didn’t do this to yourself, but I’m grasping at straws here,” he cried, wiping his eyes with a tissue taken from his pocket.

Standing to his feet, the tissue, as well as his compass, slipped from his fingers. “Dang it, that was dad’s favorite.”

Noticing the tissue had not fallen into the stream like the compass, but had instead been caught by the wind and blown onto a ridge ten feet below, he was intrigued.

“No way,” he said. “It can’t be.”

Using his shirt sleeve to clear the tears from his eyes, he tried to discern what he thought he had seen. It was in fact what he had hoped. He had found his mother’s diary.

Tossed onto the ridge at some point during her expedition, he knew retrieving it was of utmost importance.

Climbing over the edge, he descended the ledge, dropping the near three feet to the diary. This is it, he thought.

Taking a seat on the ridge, he began carefully studying each entry.

Day 1: Cannot wait to get started, she wrote.

Analyzing every page, he brought under scrutiny each word, hoping like fury to find evidence of some form of criminal activity.

Day 9: Have not spotted cypripedium reginae, but I was told where to find plethodon fourchensis by a group of local hikers—-footing there first thing in the morning.

Day 10: Finally made it. It took a good two hours to find this place. Its beauty is unimaginable. I am sitting at the top of a natural waterfall. Would have never thought it could all be so breathtaking.

Day 14: Been following a family of salamanders for nearly five days—-discovered them near the waterfall—-documenting their activity around their habitat by film.

-Breaking for lunch now. Heard a loud howling earlier, figured it was a coyote, possibly the wind.

-Looking down into the valley, I watched as a helicopter landed. Suppose it’s bringing supplies to the park rangers.

-Just finished lunch—-noticed something bizarre. I think the men on the helicopter were carrying firearms. Maybe they’re hunters. Is hunting allowed up here?

-I should report it, but I am a solid ninety minutes from the ranger’s station. I guess I’ll talk with the rangers about it in the morning.

-Preparing to set up camp—-have been monitoring the helicopter with my binoculars all day. I am exhausted and a little scared. The men appear angry. But, who am I to say?—-Time to start a fire and open a can of beans.

-Dinner was delicious. Tent is up, bed is made, and sun is setting. It couldn’t be more beautiful—-except the men from the helicopter are still here. Leave already.

-Wait. I think they’re looking this way. Could they see me from all the way down there? Have I been spotted?

-It looks like three of them are leaving the area in a jeep. They’re heading in this direction. Surely it’s a coincidence. I hope.

He closed her diary and tucked it into his pants. Preparing to scale the waterfall, he glanced down. Imagining how afraid his mother must have been, he was overcome with rage. “Those bastards better pray to God I don’t find them,” he whispered.

She wrote the family of salamanders was near the waterfall, he thought, shifting his attention to the location of her missing equipment.

“I wonder if she hid the camcorder because she took footage of the criminals. Maybe that’s why the removable media card is missing from her camera.”

Juan, hearing Brush vocalize all of his thoughts had sparked his curiosity. His patience running thin, he decided to make his move.

Removing his sidearm from its holster, he approached Andrew.

“I will take that,” said Juan, motioning for the diary, his weapon pointed at Andrew.

“Who the hell are you,” asked Andrew. “Wait, you’re the—”

“Quite the master of deduction,” interrupted Juan. “Now hand over the diary.”

“So, something did happen to my mom. She didn’t attempt suicide. You did this.”

“And after you lead me to the camcorder, I will destroy both.”

“I’m not leading you to anything!”

Juan pulled the hammer back, pressing the barrel against Andrew’s forehead. “Lead me to it or I am going to blow your head off,” he said, his eyes fixed on Andrew’s.

Now’s my chance, thought Andrew. “See, that was your mistake,” he said.

“Mistake? What mistake,” asked Juan.

A slight grin present on his face, Andrew unleashed his mounting rage. Latching onto Juan’s elbow with one hand, he secured his gun with the other, propelling him into a nearby tree.

With the gun landing in the thick shrubbery, Juan did not even attempt to recover it.

“You think you are tough,” asked Juan, regaining his balance. “You are about to feel the most pain you have ever felt in your life.”

“You don’t scare me,” replied Andrew. “You’re just another dirt—”

Before he could finish his sentence, Juan charged him, tackling him to the ground. On the bad side of a full-mount, Andrew struggled to prevent him from setting up a cross collar chokehold.

His right hand in place, Juan was inching his left inward when Andrew realized his opportunity. With minimal room to strike, Andrew exploded, landing three rib shots in quick succession.

Utilizing the distraction to his advantage, he shot his right arm upward, breaking Juan’s weakened grip. Now free, he scooted out from underneath Juan.

“Bold move. Execution was a little sloppy, but—”

“Shut-up already,” interrupted Andrew.

Faking a left jab, Andrew struck Juan in the femoral artery.

Blocking Juan’s right hook, he countered with a knee strike.

Absorbing the blow, Juan swung his head upward, striking Andrew in the nose.

Despite a broken nose, Andrew executed a left hook, followed by a right reverse punch.

Dodging both, Juan countered by thrusting Andrew up against a rock formation. Pinning him against the wall, Juan dealt one fierce blow after another.

Gripping the nape of his neck, Juan finished him off with an elbow strike to the bridge of the nose. Releasing him, Andrew fell to the ground.

“It seems you are not as tough as you first appeared,” said Juan.

“Looks can be deceiving,” replied Andrew, still on the ground, cradling his ribs.

“So close to death and so calm,” said Juan.

“You have to admit, I landed a few good ones though,” replied a smiling Andrew, lifting himself up enough to rest on his elbows.

“You are at a disadvantage. You should learn to be more respectful of those who hold your life in their hands. As you can see, your ignorance has cost you yours.”

“I’m fairly certain you were going to kill me anyway,” replied Andrew, spitting blood onto his shirt. “Sure as hell not going down without a fight.”

Juan knelt down to retrieve a concealed .38 special from his leg holster.

“So, before you kill me,” continued Andrew, “tell me. Why did you do it?”

“Your mother was in the wrong place at the wrong time, merely collateral damage. It was nothing personal.”

“Officer Griego. He’s in on it?”

“Enough questions.”

“Wait. You said I wasn’t tough enough.”

“Yes, you are weak and now you will die,” replied Juan, aiming his weapon at Andrew.

“What about him,” he asked, nodding his head to the person standing behind Juan.

Just as Juan turned his head, he was struck with an outside crescent, the sheer force of the kick knocking him to the ground.

With Juan scrambling to stand, William executed a powerful roundhouse kick, propelling him to the edge of the waterfall.

“You okay, Andrew,” asked William.

“Where’d you come from,” he replied.

“I followed you. Look, you were right. I’m the idiot. Mom would never hurt herself like that. I just didn’t have the courage to pursue it as intensely as you. I admire that, always have. It’s something you got from your mother.”

“Help me up,” he said, reaching for his father’s hand. “Let’s get out of here.”

William turned to Juan. “I should kill you where you stand,” he said.

“You have made the biggest mistake of your life,” replied Juan. “We will find you and you will pay.”

“You had better hope your man Griego can keep his mouth shut.” said William. “Because when the feds threaten him with life in prison, I have a feeling you will have far more pressing matters to attend to than what one little family witnessed on a hiking trip.”

As they turned to leave, Juan pulled a knife from a sheath attached to his leg and lunged at William.

“You really need to work on your technique,” said William as he sidestepped the attack, redirecting the knife into Juan’s stomach.

Nose to nose, his hand still firmly gripping the knife, William spoke.

“I do not fear you, nor do I fear killing you. In fact, it’s quite difficult for me to not end you right now. So understand this, if you ever come after my family again, you will die in a most tortuous, unimaginable manner. You got me?”

Juan attempted to speak, but was unable.

William twisted the knife one last time before jerking it out and tossing it over the ledge into the stream below.

Screaming in anguish, Juan dropped to his knees, collapsing from the pain.

“Come on,” said William, positioning Andrew’s right arm across his shoulders for support and wrapping his left around Andrew’s side. “Let’s go home.”

“Dad, I think I know what I want to do,” said Andrew, as they descended the mountainside.

“What’s that,” asked William.

“I want to join the FBI.”

~

 

“Nice to meet you,” said Agent Raigge. “Please have a seat,” he said, pointing to the chair opposite his.

“You too, sir,” replied Andrew, unbuttoning his suit jacket before sitting. “This is a nice office, sir.”

“I’m sorry to ask you down here on such short notice, but I would like to reevaluate your situation.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” replied Raigge, skimming Andrew’s application, “it’s clear to me you have great potential. And, if you desire a career with the FBI, I think I can make that happen.”

“Pardon my skepticism, but my application has already been denied. I was advised to obtain a master’s degree before reapplying.”

“Yeah, I see that here—Masters of Science in Psychology with double emphasis – Social Psychology and Crisis Management and Response. That’s a mouthful. It’s also nonsense.

“To qualify to join, you’re only required to have a bachelor’s degree, perhaps also proficiency in a foreign language,” said Raigge, tossing Andrew’s application onto his desk.

“I was told my degree—”

“Hell, with that crap you could even be a profiler,” interrupted Raigge, “and become one of those braniacs from the Behavioral Analysis Unit.”

“Well, sir—”

“Brush, what I’m trying to say, is the offer is still on the table. The bureau could really benefit from having you on our team.

“The passion you expressed in your interview about ‘hunting down the cartels’ is something rarely seen in a budding agent. And something we desperately need.”

“You are serious about this,” asked Brush, straightening his posture.

“Son, it’s no secret the number of agents we lose every day. Our borders are not safe. I sense a leadership within you, a drive. We need that more than anything right now.

“I am asking you to seriously reconsider your application, and to accept my apologies for the rejection you received the first go-around.”

“Sir, I wouldn’t have applied if I wasn’t serious about making a career out of this.

“If you can guarantee I remain in Texas, on the border, then you have my full commitment.”

“Excellent. Let me draw up the paperwork.”

 

~

 

Andrew Brush matured during those twenty-one weeks at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. A true test of his passion, he emerged a legitimate threat to the drug cartels.

Armed with newly acquired knowledge, skills and a long-kept, burning vengeance, he was the first of his class to be assigned to the Narcotics Trafficking and Violent Crime Division of the Dallas Field Office. A division overrun with cases of cartel violence.

“I need backup,” he hollered on his radio, ducking behind the counter of a café in Brownsville, Texas, his back to the wall.

“Your partner is dead, señor,” replied the man near the front door. “Just make this easy and let us kill you now,” he laughed.

“Not a chance in hell,” he whispered, jumping up from behind the counter, firing his last two rounds, missing with both.

Engaging the magazine release, he slid in another before diving across the hallway, firing five rounds, taking cover behind the refrigerated pastry display.

“Damn it,” said Brush, leaning against the display, blood erupting from his side. “Where is my backup?”

Unbeknownst to him, his partner, Agent Weinkauf was lying unconscious in the storeroom, having sustained three gunshot wounds to the torso.

With seven rounds remaining in his last magazine, and four members of the cartel closing in, his options were narrowing.

Crawling to the refrigerator, he knew he could utilize the door for broader cover. Scooting it toward the gunfire, he shielded himself while immobilizing the remaining threats.

“You were shot twice,” asked a distraught Kelly, glued to his side at the hospital.

“The shoulder was grazed is all,” replied Brush.

“What about your partner? How is Weinkauf?”

“A collapsed lung and a few bruised ribs from the impacts to his vest. He’ll be fine. As will I.”

“Why didn’t you call in backup?”

“There were only supposed to be three. Once we got inside, it was apparent that was a mistake. There were a total of nine.”

“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to stay here,” interrupted a nurse. “He is being taken in for surgery now.”

“I love you,” said Kelly. “I will be waiting for you.”

“I love you,” replied Brush, as they carted him down the hall into the operating room.

 

~

 

“I’m a little nervous meeting your father,” said Brush, straightening his tie using the visor mirror.

“Don’t be. He’s thrilled I’m dating a fellow agent.”

“Fellow agent? The man is the Houston SAC on the fast track to becoming the Assistant Director of the FBI. I wouldn’t say we’re fellow anything’s,” replied Brush.

“Andy, we’ve been dating for six months. I want to show you off to them.”

“Okay,” he replied, escorting her to the door.

“Here goes nothing,” he whispered, ringing the doorbell.

“You’re going to be fine. They’ll love you.”

Her father answered the door.

“Kelly, Andrew, welcome.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Brush, extending his hand.

“At the office, it’s SAC Gorman, or sir. Here, call me Angelo.”

“It’s a real honor to meet you, sir. You have quite the history at the agency.”

Angelo offered a faint grin. “Come on in, have a drink. Tell me more about these cartels you hunt.”

Andrew poured himself a glass of iced tea.

“It’s exceptionally difficult work, never-ending and all-consuming. But, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t just as rewarding.”

“I admire that, son. Most agents say the same, save for that last part. Rewarding is not a word I hear from the Narcotics Trafficking and Violent Crime folks—ever.”

“The cartels always maintain strategic advantage. We bust a major operation, take down a few key players, they still manage to increase production time with twice the manpower. Sometimes it feels like we’re drowning.”

“So, I hate to put you on the spot,” said Angelo, guiding Brush to the patio, “but my daughter is real crazy about you. Do you reciprocate?”

“I love your daughter, sir. I knew the moment I saw her behind that desk. It was my first day in Dallas.”

“Where do you see yourself five, ten years down the road?”

“What do you know about the Behavioral Analysis Unit?”

“Not much, but I’m certain I can arrange for you to have a sit down with some individuals privy to the unit,” replied Angelo. “I have a contact or two up there.”

“I just may hold you to that, sir.”

 

~

 

“Firstly, eighty percent of agents, at some point in their career, desire to be in this unit,” said Dr. Kimberly Dunn. “What unique skill do you bring to the table the hundreds of others lack?”

“True stat, or are you just blowing smoke,” Brush asked, standing in the office of the hiring agent.

“Excuse me, Agent Brush?”

“For the past six years, I have without fail, chased down and apprehended members of every major Mexican drug cartel operating within our borders.

“Based out of the Dallas Field Office, I like to think I know no bounds, traveling throughout Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona to bring these drug lords to justice.”

“If you excel as such in your current post, and possess the passion so regal, why relocate?”

“It’s not conducive to raising a family. I am twenty-eight and have been undercover sixty of the last seventy-two months.”

“It says here, married for three years?”

“The risk of leaving my twenty-three year old wife a widow with a toddler is no longer acceptable.”

“Academically, you are most qualified. However, your age and tenure are both significant disadvantages.”

“I understand.”

“If it weren’t for your stellar recommendations from SAC Decker and Assistant Director Gorman, I wouldn’t feel comfortable offering you the position.”

Brush stood silent.

Dr. Dunn offered an exaggerated sigh. Removing her eye glasses, she meticulously placed them on his folder and stood.

“There will be a one year probationary period,” she said. “At any point during that year, I will not hesitate to pull you out.

“One wrong move, and it’s like this never happened. You will not receive a second chance, no saving grace. Am I clear?”

“Crystal, ma’am”

“If all goes well, we will meet again at your one year. If you see me before then, it’s to remove you from the unit.”

Brush turned to leave.

“Oh and Agent Brush?”

He turned.

“It’s Dr.”

 

~

 

Three hours into his first day, the unit received a call from the county sheriff in Turtle Lake, Montana, requesting their assistance with a serial case.

The unit, led by Supervisory Special Agent Theodore Basin, held an impromptu meeting en route to the airport.

“Three people have been murdered in Lake County over the past three months,” said Basin. “Initially, they all appeared to be robberies gone wrong.”

“Initially,” asked Brush.

“Upon closer examination, the local medical examiner uncovered that in the struggle, the perpetrator violently removed the victims’ ears.”

“They somehow deduced sawn-off ears to be a part of the struggle? Seriously?”

“Let it go, Brush. That’s why we have Carnahan.”

“How long between the murders,” asked Straight, also a supervisory special agent.

“Seven weeks and five weeks”

“So, what are we thinking, random,” asked Carnahan, the unit’s medical doctor.

“Never,” replied Basin, pulling the sheriff’s report from his briefcase. “The same method is never random.”

“What are you not telling us,” asked Brush.

“Last week, Sheriff Lester ran the names through the NCIC database, discovering neither victim existed beyond ten years ago.”

“What are you thinking,” asked Special Agent Pace. “Witness protection?”

Basin shook his head. “Witness Protection means the marshals would be all over this. No one has claimed the bodies.”

“Sleeper agents,” asked Brush. “Terrorists hiding in plain sight, gathering information, awaiting orders to strike?”

“Little too Hollywood for my taste,” said Pace.

“Maybe so,” replied Basin, “won’t know for sure until we get there.”

 

~

 

“As if the twenty-three hundred mile flight into Helena wasn’t enough, we win a treacherous, three hour drive on snow-packed roads before finally arriving in nowhere,” said Straight, her disgust regal.

Basin rolled his eyes.

Brush chuckled.

“How much snow is this,” asked Straight, squinting as the bracing winds blew the sleet into her face.

“Well over a foot,” replied Brush, tightening his jacket hood down over his head.

“I have never seen this much snow in my life,” continued Straight, yanking her luggage from the SUV.

“Seventeen inches to be exact,” interjected Sheriff Lester; “with wind speeds up to forty miles per.

“This ain’t but just a little thing. Glad to see you made it in one piece, though.”

“Where can we set up,” asked Basin, handing the sheriff two boxes. “I want to be operational as quickly as possible. It’s almost midnight.”

“Right this way,” replied the sheriff.

 

~

 

As morning dawned, Basin departed for the most recent crime scene, while agents Straight and Pace took the first two, leaving Carnahan to meet with the local medical examiner.

“This doesn’t make sense,” said Straight. “The methods are just—bizarre.”

“Bizarre, but consistent,” replied Pace, “entry through an unlocked window, slight struggle, mutilation, strangulation, concluding with ransacking the residence.”

“They simply don’t fit,” said Straight. “The hasty, clearly unskilled removal of the victim’s ears combined with strangulation?

“The individual significance associated with each of the acts is far too different, the release indicative of two different killers.”

“Possibly a group,” asked Pace.

“Possibly,” replied Straight.

 

~

 

“We have discussed this before, Brush,” said Basin, entering the victim’s residence through the back door. “Tell me, what motive would a serial killer have to mutilate?”

“The motives for mutilation are power, control,” replied Brush.

“Correct. Do you notice anything else?”

“If a serial killer is running around mutilating bodies, how does that relate to the robberies?”

“Valid point, but first is the component of sexual assault.”

“You said there was no sign of sexual assault.”

“Exactly,” replied Basin, “there isn’t.”

“But mutilation and sexual assault is a pair.”

“Indeed they are.”

“So, what does that mean,” asked Brush.

“It means we may have some imitators trying to cover their tracks,” replied Basin.

“But, two of the three victims were male. If the perpetrator is also a male, would he not modify the sexual assault component of the crime?”

“Serial killers are compelled to kill in a very specific pattern. They are incapable of modifying the method by which they obtain their release. It is the very reason they commit the acts.”

“So, they only choose victims that meet their sexual desire,” asked Brush.

“Essentially, yes. The fact that the perpetrator killed across genders is noteworthy.”

“How does the strangulation fit, then?”

“As either another aspect of the power/control motive, wherein the perpetrator gains pleasure from watching the victim die in his control, at his will.

“Or as an act from the mind of a mission driven individual, the quick death being his goal.”

They both stood.

“The thing that bugs me,” continued Basin, removing his blue latex gloves, “is that if it were an act of power or control, there most definitely would have been a component of sexual assault.

“At the very least, there should be multiple stab wounds, the penetration of the knife being the release.”

“I will be analyzing the mess in the office if you need me,” said Brush, shaking his head in frustration. “I need to clear my head.”

Turning toward the office, Basin stopped him. “You understand the robbery adds yet another dimension to the case, right?”

“Been pondering the possibilities,” he replied.

“Good, I’ll be interested in your analysis later.”

“In the meantime,” he continued, “why don’t you go outside and get some fresh air. I’ll have a uniform grab you if I find anything.”

“I’m fine,” replied Brush, rubbing his forehead. “You were saying the robbery adds more to the crime?”

“A hedonistic serial killer is driven by financial gain, for example. Therefore, he would be committing these crimes for money.”

“They are driven by thrill, sexual pleasure, or financial gain,” said Brush.

“Correct. Now which of these acts does not fit that motive,” asked Basin.

“The only act that does not fit that motive is—” he paused before throwing his hands in the air, “—the mutilation.”

“As frustrating as it is fascinating,” replied Basin. “I anticipate the others ran into similar discrepancies,” he said, reaching for the case file, following Brush out to the SUV.

“Take a look at these,” he said, handing Brush the crime scene photos. “I’m going to touch base with Straight. See if her and Pace have had any luck.”

“This is Straight.”

“Find anything at the scene?”

“I’m doing well. Thanks for asking.”

“What do you have, Agent?”

“Not much. There are too many inconsistencies. The methods change within the same kill and between kills. It’s not like any case I’ve ever worked.”

“I see the motives of a least three independent killers. So, the question becomes: why are they working together? What common goal unites them?”

“Perhaps the answers are not at the scenes,” said Straight. “Perhaps they lie with the bodies.”

“Tell Pace to get his ass to Helena. We need his command center high-speed.”

Yes, sir”

“Phone Carnahan; tell her we need the remains examined now. We don’t have much time.”

“What’s the urgency,” interjected Brush.

“As if it wasn’t obvious enough,” replied Basin, disconnecting with Straight, “at this moment, there is a pack of serial killers operating independently, yet unified.”

Brush stood clueless.

“Which means we are currently unable to predict their actions, their motives, who they will strike next,” continued Basin. “Right now, the killers hold all the cards.”

 

~

 

“Commencing a thorough examination at once,” said Carnahan, speaking into her digital voice recorder.

“Sorry to interrupt, miss,” said the deputy, “but there’s a call for you.”

“No worries, bring it to me. And place the call on speaker would you? My hands are otherwise engaged.”

“Ma’am, we’re in the basement of an abandoned elementary school. Cell reception doesn’t exist. The call is on the landline in the office. It’s a member of your team.”

“Very well. Give me just a moment.”

“They say it’s urgent.”

“You know what? No. Tell them I’m in-over-my-head with remains. If they need me, they know where to find me.”

“Yes, ma’am”

“The inconsistencies of the crime scenes lead me to believe the only reliable evidence will be found with the remains,” she said, again speaking into the recorder.

It must be here somewhere, she thought, examining every inch of each victim’s body. I will find you.

“I am disappointed to report that after an exhaustive examination of the victims, I am no closer to uncovering any connection than before.

“I will once again review the medical examiner’s notes and mine, before re-examining the most recent victim, as I’m afraid the advanced decomposition of the first two are significant hindrances.”

“Time to bring under scrutiny every physical act and subsequent implication,” said Carnahan, speaking into the recorder. “I am confident the answer is here.”

Adjusting the mobile medical examination lamp, a bruise on the victim’s neck caught her eye.

“You appear different than the others,” she whispered, reaching for the magnifying glass, “slightly smaller perhaps. I don’t know why I didn’t catch you before.”

Moving in haste, she grabbed the nearest square ruler she could find to measure the bruise, comparing it to her notes of the other victims.

“Upon closer analysis of the bruising pattern found on victim number three, I can speak with confidence that our victims were targeted by multiple perpetrators. This is not the work of a sole serial killer.”

These murders were committed by three different individuals and I can prove it, she thought.

Dropping everything, she phoned Basin.

“What do you have, Carnahan?”

“Sir, you need to see this.”

“Can’t it wait? I’m in Pablo conducting interviews.”

“Our victims were killed by three separate individuals. So, either they’re unrelated or—”

“It was a group.”

“I concur.”

“Are you certain of this?”

“The bruising patterns on their necks are from three very similar, yet unique sets of hands. This is not the work of a serial killer.”

“Very well, we are on our way. It’s not like the locals are talking anyway. It’s like our victims were invisible. Be there in twenty.”

“What did she find,” asked Brush.

“As we suspected, it’s the work of multiple perpetrators. I need to get ahold of Pace.”

 

~

 

“Why only ten years,” asked Pace, filling the desk with various components of his mobile command center.

Not only is that amateurish, but it’s downright dumb, and dangerous, he thought.

“Talk about a bad move,” he said, talking to himself in the otherwise empty hotel room. “If they were undercover officers, anything less than a full history would be unusual and their bodies would’ve been claimed.

“If they were criminals killed because they were a liability, one would expect the bodies to have been removed from the crime scene to hinder the investigation.”

Laying the file out on his lap, he highlighted the name of the first victim. “Let’s see who you were,” he said, typing it into the NCIC database.

Upon pressing the enter key on his laptop keyboard, his screen went black as if his computer had lost power.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” he said, crawling underneath the desk to check each wire’s connection, “these stupid hotels, I hate them.”

Hearing an unexpected beep, he peeked up at the monitor. While still dark, large red letters had appeared:

 

CLASSIFICATION: TOP SECRET

 

            CLEARANCE: NOT AUTHORIZED

 

“I was hoping this would come with a challenge for The Frenchman,” said a grinning Pace, popping open a can of ice cold coke taken from the mini fridge.

An exceptional cryptanalyst, Pace spent his early years developing what he considered to be an upgraded version of the Cain and Abel password recovery software.

Rewriting the script, he configured it to be capable of cracking the passwords of nearly every federal computer system within the United States government.

Through titling the program The Frenchman, he was paying tribute to his recently deceased French Papillion, Pepé.

Having been employed by the FBI as an alternative to serving a life sentence for his cybercrimes, he honed his appetite for all things criminal through ethical hacking.

He believed by assisting with the investigations, he was making atonement for all the previous destruction he had caused.

Using The Frenchmen, he quickly cracked the Kerberos Five hashes, successfully gaining access to the file, only to discover the database had been further locked by the CIA who had subsequently been notified of the breach.

“Damn it, they know I’m in,” he said, leaning forward in his chair, typing as fast as he could. “I don’t have enough time to do this.”

“What did you find out,” asked Basin.

“More than I wish,” replied Pace, “that’s why I called you.”

“Spill then, Pace.”

“Sorry, sir, just trying to bypass their second line of defense; bear with me.”

“Getting the best of you, is it?”

“Eat your words, boss. My hash chains are perfect; their salting is no match for The Frenchman.”

“I don’t understand the problem,” said Basin.

“I was locked out of the system. After breaching their impenetrable security, I was hit with a strangely familiar encryption standard. Something I know I’ve seen before, but can’t quite place. It’s extremely unique.”

“So, can you access the files or not?”

“I authenticated to their authentication proxy, gaining access to the files, but their intrusion detection system has detected my presence. It’s a reactive system, meaning it’s basically pushing me out, preventing me from opening the files.”

“Who would work so diligently to keep these files protected, hidden,” asked Basin.

“Well, the practice isn’t uncommon; it’s just this particular system is not something on the market. It has been modified by some intelligent individuals, which is why I know where it came from.”

“What? Are you in or not?”

“I know where I’ve seen this before.”

“Where?”

“Back when I was trying to plant files into a CIA database,” replied Pace, “a few years ago.”

“Should I even ask?”

“They were laced with malicious code. As soon as they were opened, a script was set to run undetected, sending me the information I needed. It was a stupid thing to do, very amateurish.”

“The CIA,” whispered Basin.

“That is correct, sir.”

“Pack up your equipment, Pace. We’re going home,” replied Basin, disconnecting the call.

“Why,” asked Brush.

“This is a CIA matter. Not our jurisdiction, not our problem.”

“So, that means we just give up and go home?”

“No, that means the CIA will be here in less than twelve hours to claim jurisdiction, and I don’t want to be here when that happens.

“The victims are clearly CIA agents, meaning it’s probably a matter of national security. We will send them our findings and perpetrator profile when we land in Quantico.”

“Are you not the slightest bit curious?”

“Not anymore.”

“This is an unsettling feeling,” said Brush, observing from a distance as Basin spoke with his supervisor regarding the matter.

“Here’s to the bizarre ending of the most bizarre case,” replied Pace, tossing Brush a bottle of vitamin water.

“So, everything’s been relinquished, huh?”

“Yep. Evidence, case files, analyses.”

Little did Brush know, his first case with the Behavioral Analysis Unit would also be last; that five years down the road, when it all resurfaced, he would be given an ultimatum, forced to choose between an innocent life and his place within the unit.

 

~

 

“It is good to be back,” he whispered, entering through the basement door of his Dallas home.

Engaging the speakerphone feature on his landline, he pressed speed dial one.

“Kel, Amz, this is dad. Listen—I know it’s been a while, but I’m back. If it’s ok, maybe we could grab a bite one night this week. Give me a call. Love you both.”

“This is going to be much harder than I thought,” he whispered, dragging his suitcase into his bedroom.

Reconnecting with his girls proved to be a delicate process, one spanning nearly three years. However, determined to clear the rubble of his past relationships and start anew, he persisted, re-carving his place in their lives.

“This is her all-time favorite pasta eatery and she ditched us again,” said Brush, tossing his crumpled napkin onto his plate.

“Don’t tell me you haven’t caught on by now,” asked Kelly, straightening her unused silverware.

“You really think she is that conniving?”

“She’s her father’s daughter.”

“Nonetheless, I enjoy the time.”

“Me too, this was nice,” she replied, smiling.

“It was,” he said, raising his glass, signaling the server for a refill.

“I miss you.”

“And I miss you.”

“So, how does it feel to be back at your old job?”

“It seems in the five years I was in Quantico, the cartels have tripled operations, expanding farther north in the U.S., and recent reports suggest they have made initial contact with the Australians.”

“Sounds serious”

“If they successfully tap into the Australian marketplace, their twenty billion dollar annual revenue will more than double, making them even more unstoppable. The bureau is demanding a new strategy going forward, but I don’t see it.”

“Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?”

“Last week, we persuaded a low level mule to squeal, which has led us to some middle management inside El Diablo. It looks promising.”

“What,” she asked, her stomach churning, a frog developing in her throat. “Aren’t they the ones that tried to kill your mother,” she whispered, leaning forward in her chair.

He nodded. “It’s taken me fifteen years, Kel, but I finally found my way inside.”

“What are you talking about?”

El Diablo is in the market for an investment broker. Apparently, five billion needs to be moved fast. Their last broker was nabbed, causing great upset.”

“You have worked so hard for this.”

“I know.”

“Are they allowing your involvement? I mean, are you making the official recommendation for which agent takes it?”

“Yes,” he replied, rubbing his forehead.

“So, have you made your—,” Kelly paused, “wait.” Staring into his eyes, she offered a quizzical gaze. “I think I know where this is going. How could I be so stupid?”

“Where is that,” he asked, avoiding eye contact.

“You’re taking this assignment, aren’t you?”

He remained silent.

She yanked her hand out of his.

“Kel, don’t do this.”

“Me? Don’t make this about me. It’s not about me.”

“Kel—”

“Damn it, Andy. I thought it was going to be different this time, that you had come to your senses. But, you just can’t leave this alone, can you? You’ve always got to be the one to save the world.”

“Kel, this is the culmination of fifteen years of hunting these bastards down, the monsters that left my mother for dead. If you think for one second I am going to back down, you have another think coming.”

“I know how much this means to you, trust me, but the same justice can be served by sending in another agent. You don’t have to do this. Just who authorized this anyway?”

“Who authorized this operation is none of your concern. You are a civilian. And to answer your next question, I appear much different than the twenty-three year old they might remember. I’m not concerned.”

“But, that is an additional, unnecessary risk.”

“Facing these guys, making them pay, is something I must do. It is non-negotiable.”

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Whatever, Andy, I have to go,” she replied, grabbing her purse.

“Listen, Kel—”

“No, you listen,” she interrupted, standing to her feet. “As much as it pains me, I respect your decision. However, if you want us by your side, put this case to rest.

“Apprehend these criminals; get it all out of your system, because I will not go through this a second time.”

Brush sat silent.

“I have your back, Andy, as long as you promise me when the dust settles, you can walk away.”

“I promise.”

“Then, what are you waiting for? Go get your justice. Just don’t come home until it’s finished.”

“I understand.”

“Keep me in the loop. Standard protocol?”

“Standard protocol,” he replied, sliding a few bills under his empty glass.

 

~

 

“It’s never too early to prep,” he said, pulling a notepad from his desk drawer.

“The backstory has to come natural,” he continued, taking a seat at his kitchen table, notepad in front of him, pen in hand. “It can’t seem forced.”

El Diablo is notorious for sniffing out undercover agents. I’m not sure six months is adequate time to develop an impenetrable cover for what could very well be a twelve to eighteen month operation.”

As memories of the summer of ninety-five flooded his mind, a burning hatred welled up inside him.

Maintain objectivity, he ordered himself. This is a long con. The only way to succeed is to infiltrate. Deceive the enemy, gain the upper hand. Do not give in to base desires. Revenge is futile. Justice is righteous.

 

~

 

“Good morning, Agent Brush.”

“Good morning, sir.”

“I trust you had a restful weekend off.”

“I suppose. How about yourself?”

“Unfortunately, the title of Executive Assistant Director of the Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch of the FBI doesn’t include the weekend package.”

“I know the feeling, sir.”

“There’s been a slight change of plans.”

“Okay.”

“Now here me out before you get all upset.”

“Calm as a cucumber, sir.”

“It is my understanding you were led to believe you had six months to prepare for this operation. When you were told that, it was a true statement. Unfortunately, El Diablo has jumped much sooner than we expected.”

“I think you think I know more than I know.”

“Let me back up. When you first got word of their interest in acquiring the services of a broker, we created an alias and immediately put word on the street.”

“I know that much.”

“Expecting El Diablo’s vetting process to take some time, we figured we had six months.”

“Sounds reasonable”

“We put word out three days ago. I just received a call from my contact. El Diablo is requesting a meeting with Investment Broker Jack Haiden.”

“So, what are you saying?”

“We need you to assume the cover this week, tomorrow in fact.”

“That’s impossible. I still have investment training to undergo, a firm to research, an apartment to find. I don’t even know what city you’re dropping me into.”

“Everything you just mentioned is set, save for the training. You will be stationed in Austin, installed as Senior Broker Jack Haiden of Austin Financial Group. And never worry, your cover leads all the way back to birth.

“As for your training, you will undergo an eight hour crash course on investment banking. You only need to be able to talk a good talk, this course offers that.”

“You have no doubts El Diablo could question my skills, test my knowledge?”

“I suggest you pay attention in class and study the accompanying manuals.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Look, it’s not like you’re actually performing any real investing. The website you will use is a secure FBI website. It will only appear their funds are being invested.

“All you’ll actually be doing is transferring the funds into an account at the bureau. False reports will be generated for the cartel’s peace of mind.”

“And we have no reason to believe anyone on the inside is educated enough to challenge my authority?”

“Correct, this is a fairly new venture for them.”

 

~

 

Three o’clock Tuesday morning, Brush received a call from the Executive Assistant Director. The transport was en route, ETA: one hour.

Ordered to dismantle and dispose of his cell phone, he took the liberty of doing the same to his desktop and laptops, the backups secured at the FBI.

Stepping outside, the transport waiting, he paused, taking one last moment to gaze upon a picture of his family.

He chose not to notify his parents, an act not taken lightly. Given the personal nature of the operation, he felt obligated to inform them. In the end, he had to believe it was safer keeping them in the dark. Too much was at stake.

Closing the door, he pulled his key from the deadbolt. “I’m doing this for you, ma,” he whispered.

Once in the transport, he noticed a manila envelope on the seat next to him. “What’s this,” he asked.

“Why don’t you open it and see for yourself,” replied the driver, pulling into the street, speeding away.

“Who pissed in your cheerios?”

The driver remained silent.

“So, where to,” he asked, bending the prongs of the metal clasp together, lifting the flap to reveal the files.

“I’m your transport, not your secretary.”

“Look, genius, I’m not sure what superhuman abilities you may have, but I’m unable to read in the dark.”

“I am driving you to the Dallas International Airport, where you will be taking a commercial flight to Austin.

“The contents of the envelope are as follows: airline ticket, birth certificate, passport, driver’s license, social security card, college transcripts, continuing education certificates.”

“I thought you were just my driver?”

“Once you arrive in Austin, there will be a transport waiting. Upon dropping you at your apartment, inside you will find three untraceable cellular phones with directions to your office. Further instructions will be provided at a later time.

“Thank you.”

“You should not have taken this assignment. You are too close,” said the driver, taking the airport exit.

“A conversation I will not be having with my driver,” replied Brush, using a mini flashlight from his duffle bag to review the documents.

 

~

 

“I trust you had an enjoyable flight,” asked the agency transport in Austin.

Brush nodded.

“Where to,” asked the driver.

“You tell me.”

“Congress Ave, sir.”

“Is that a street or a building?”

The driver chuckled. “It’s a street, sir. Your building is Wyman Towers, fifty-first floor penthouse.

“Sounds expensive”

“It’s only the most prestigious residential tower in Austin, sir. Newly completed, it’s all the rave.”

The driver was not kidding, thought Brush, as he entered the penthouse.

It was a three bedroom, three and one half bath, offering a three hundred degree view of the city.

Fitted with two terraces, one overlooking the state capital, the other Lady Bird Lake, it held a sweeping view of the Texas Hill Country.

“Hello, sir” said Brush, answering one of the untraceable phones left for him on the dining room table.

“How did you know it would be me,” asked the Executive Assistant Director.

“Lucky guess,” replied Brush.

“Somehow I doubt that.”

“I think you went a little excessive on the condo. It’s a tad outside my reach.”

“Yes, but it is exactly what a senior broker at Austin Financial Group would own. Appearances Mr. Haiden, it’s all about appearances.”

“Just how did you get them to agree anyway?”

“The financial group? I fed them some nonsense about high-tech thieves hacking accounts, stealing millions. They’re scared silly. You should not experience any resistance from them at all.”

“Anyway,” he continued. “Get some rest. A car will pick you up at six. And Haiden?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Stay armed.”

 

~

 

The next three days crept by, proving to be more uneventful than anyone could have predicted.

After shutting down his computer, he turned to leave when his office phone rang.

Not one call or visitor all week, it must be El Diablo, he thought, lifting the handset from the cradle.

“Austin Financial, this is Jack.”

“Hola, Sénior Haiden,” replied the man on the other end of the line. “May I have one minute of your time,” he asked, his tone more demanding than the question.

“Sir, as much as I would like to assist you, I meet clients by appointment only. If you don’t mind providing me your contact information, I will phone you first thing Monday morning. Or perhaps you can call back and make an appointment with my secretary.”

“I believe the information I am offering is well worth the inconvenience, something not to be shared with your secretary.”

“Go on,” said Brush.

“My name is Alejandro. I work for a group interested in acquiring your services. They—”

“This still sounds like a business call,” interrupted Brush, “one that can wait until Monday.”

“You will be receiving a package within the next day or two,” continued Alejandro. “When it arrives, switch it on. My employer will contact you with details.”

“Listen, pal, the only place I meet a client is my office, and I determine the time. So, you can tell your employer to—”

“I apologize. I understood you to be a man of great discretion, willing to take on high-risk clients providing the compensation was to your satisfaction.”

“I can forget anything for a price, but who can’t?”

“This is the spirit, Sénior Haiden. My employer will be in touch. He does not call twice, keep the device near.”

“I don’t appreciate these demands. Tell your employer they are going to cost him considerably more.

“I will do this.”

Brush disconnected the call.

“An untraceable cell and an anonymous drop by a forgettable face, I guess I am going deep,” he whispered.

 

~

First thing Monday morning, just as promised, there was a miniature, black case filling his inbox.

According to his all-but-pleasant-secretary, the package had been delivered by a messenger not more than one hour prior.

Offering a brief smile, he reached over the counter, removing it from his box.

Closing the door to his office, he dropped his briefcase and jacket onto a chair before pulling his knife from his pocket.

Taking a seat at his desk, he scooted his keyboard out of the way, setting the box down in its place.

Examining the outer shell, he noticed his name and address had been typed on a label and was void of a return address. “Cautious seems to be their motto,” he whispered.

Cutting along the sides, he detached the outer packaging material, transferring it straight to a sealable plastic bag. If there is even a chance the lab could find trace DNA, I have to ensure it is preserved, he thought.

Gently sliding his knife into the opening, he popped the cardboard top upward, revealing a bagged cell phone.

Extracting it from the box, he sliced open the bag, a brick phone slipping from the package. “They’re also cheap. I haven’t seen a phone like this in ten years.”

Switching it on, he ensured the ringer was functional before setting it upright on his desk. Time to wait, he thought, reclining back in his chair.

 

~

 

Upon returning from an office luncheon on Wednesday, just as he set the phone on his desk, it rang.

“Hello,” he said, twisting the cap on a fresh bottle of water, holding the phone to his ear with his shoulder.

“Sénior Haiden,” replied Alejandro. “This means you received my package. How are you?”

“I’m not sure what you’re thinking sending me a brick phone that causes face cancer. And sending it to my place of employment? Are you insane?”

“I am certain your status at the firm ensures you are above reproach.”

“That may be, but it’s far from the point. I will not have any ties to your organization. There must be no visible connection. Are we clear?”

“My employer wishes for the same.”

“It was my understanding I would be speaking with your employer. Put him on,” said Brush, knocking back half the bottle.

“He wishes to speak with you in person.”

“Tell me you’re more cautious with your transport.”

“In exactly thirty minutes, you will purchase a coffee from the stand across the street from your office.

“In your napkin will be instructions. Arrive at the specified location in seven minutes. There, you will be escorted to my employer.”

 

~

 

Upon arriving at the location, Brush was blindfolded before being situated between two armed men, AK-47’s in hand.

Twenty minutes later, he was jerked from the SUV and led into a warehouse. Once inside, he was left alone in the middle of the building.

Extending his arms straight out, palms open, he was slow to bring his hands toward his face to remove the blindfold.

Observing all that he could, as quickly as he could, he managed to count twenty-seven guards in total, each armed with an AK-47, their sights set on him.

Standing there for what seemed like an eternity, he was soon met by a domineering, middle-aged Hispanic man of average height and considerable build.

Bursting through the office door, barking orders on his cell phone, the air thick with animosity, he hurled his phone at the wall. “I am going to kill him,” he yelled, the phone shattering upon impact.

Advancing toward Brush, he smiled. “I apologize you had to witness such things,” said the man.

“No worries,” replied Brush, “your business is none of mine. Speaking of which, I hear you wanted to see me.”

“This is correct,” said the man, removing his sidearm from its holster, “but, before we discuss business, allow me introduce myself. My name is Carlos Ramirez.”

“Jack Haiden,” replied Brush, extending his arm.

“Never mind the formality,” said Carlos, “bag him.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3

 

The Root of All Evil

 

The Colonia Buenavista, once a key asset of the Cuauhtémoc borough, one of sixteen in the Federal District of Mexico City, is located in the border town of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico.

Heavily influenced by the Ortega cartel, it once operated as a feeding ground for scouting young recruits.

Four year old Víctor Ramirez danced in the streets with his friends, when members of the feared cartel sped through the intersection executing a drive-by shooting.

Falling victim on their front lawn, his mother suffered two gunshot wounds to her lower abdomen. His father was less fortunate, as one round pierced his heart, the other his throat.

Hell-bent on growth and increased interest in forming his army, Ortega remained indifferent about the collateral damage, the path of destruction left in the aftermath of his presence.

A hardworking mechanic for several local service stations, Augustine Ramirez always addressed the cartel the best way he knew, by ignoring them.

Amada Ramirez, Augustine’s wife, Víctor’s mother, felt differently than her husband.

Having lost her brother years prior in a brutal run-in with Ortega, she held a vengeance few could understand.

Punished for interfering, Ortega ordered the barbarous removal of her right foot, to serve as a constant reminder of what the cartel, and Ortega was capable.

Always known for having a violent drug presence in the form of local street gangs, the recent expansion of the Ortega cartel increased the violence to an unbearable degree.

With a clear vision to take the city, unhindered by local law enforcement, they executed their plan; abducting young boys from nearly every street, until only those older than seven years remained.

Believed to be too difficult to train, Ortega permitted them to join the local gangs, eventually wiping them out in a series of vicious, never-ending turf wars.

After the cruel murder of his father, Víctor did not hesitate to step in to support his mother. Quitting school, he began stealing food from neighboring homes.

When that no longer sufficed, he escalated to shoplifting quality food and more expensive items from retail stores.

Within a few months, he had perfected his craft; being recruited by a local gang, he began teaching his art to others.

Previously unable to persuade him to join the cartel, it was not until they offered to care for his ill mother that an opportunity was presented, a deal struck.

“What I am proposing, you will not find a better deal. The time is now, Víctor,” said Ortega’s middle man.

“I do not know,” he replied.

“If you pass this up, your mother will continue to suffer with her ailments. It will be something you will forever regret, Víctor. Ortega is offering to provide in-home treatment for her, the best money can buy.”

“Can I have time to think about it? I need to ask God what he thinks. Papa taught me to do this.”

“If you do not take Ortega up on his offer, it is off the table forever. And the next time we go to war with your little street gang, you will no longer be protected, esé. He will order them to execute you.

“Then your mother will be alone with no chance of treatment. Is that what you want? For her to die alone? Is that what God would want? Would not God want you to accept Ortega’s generosity? Perhaps, He is using Ortega as a blessing to your mother.”

“Fine,” replied Víctor. “I will join once my mother’s treatment has begun.”

 

~

 

Excelling inside the Ortega cartel, Víctor carried a suppressed violence unparalleled for someone his age.

Given the opportunity and resources, he was encouraged to tap into his sadistic thoughts and desires, to act upon them, paving the way for his transformation from an innocent child into a deranged, volatile adolescent.

“It has been two years since you became an Ortega,” said Cruz, founder and leader of the Ortega cartel. “It is time to prove your allegiance.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Víctor.

“We have abducted twenty-seven elite members of the Gonzalez cartel, our main rival. You have observed several techniques for torture from my greatest men. Now, the time is yours,” he said, handing Víctor a dagger.

“Torture, then murder,” asked Víctor.

,” replied Ortega. “Follow me.”

Accompanying him into the damp, darkened basement of an abandoned house, Víctor observed as Ortega yanked a bag off the head of a wounded man.

“Wake up,” he said, grabbing the man by the hair of his head, striking him in the face multiple times.

The man’s eyes swollen shut, he managed to lift his head, to try and make eye contact with Ortega the best he could. Restrained to a metal chair bolted to the cement floor, his mobility remained considerably impaired.

“Do you wish to be a real man,” asked Ortega. “Then slit this filth’s throat. He tried to strong-arm one of our trafficking routes; we lost five of our best coyotes.”

“You filth,” whispered Víctor. “Your ignorance will be a message to your people to not mess with Ortega.”

“My people will learn nothing,” replied the man. “They will continue until they have Ortega’s head on a stick. They will burn his empire to the ground.”

Víctor turned to Ortega. “This dagger will not do,” he said. “I will need something with a larger blade.”

“Part of your training is learning to kill with the smallest of weapons,” replied Ortega.

“Many times our aggression stirs a desire within us to use larger weapons as though they make a difference. They generally do not,” he continued.

“Instead, channel this into how you can take something so small and inflict maximum pain and suffering.”

Positioning himself in front of the prisoner, Víctor paused, meditating on Ortega’s advice.

“Take your time, boy,” said Ortega, “think it through. To kill is not enough; it is much more. It is an art, your personal mark to let the world know you were responsible. It is the single most important thing you will ever create.”

Tightening his grip on the dagger, Víctor grabbed the prisoner’s throat, plunging the dagger into the lower right quadrant of his abdomen.

“I thought I told you maximum pain and suffering,” yelled Ortega. “What is this?”

“I am not finished,” screamed Víctor, his hand still gripping the dagger.

“Then finish him,” yelled Ortega.

Gazing into the prisoner’s eyes, Víctor grinned just before jerking the dagger across his abdomen.

“Good job, boy. Now, drop the blade.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Víctor, his grip weakening until the dagger fell to the ground.

“Now, let us go upstairs. It is time to celebrate.”

“What are we celebrating?”

“You are no longer a child, Víctor. Today, you became a man.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied. “I am a man.”

“That you are,” said Ortega, patting Víctor on the back as they climbed the stairs together.

 

~

 

That first kill served as the final act Ortega needed to ensure Víctor’s allegiance to the cartel.

Rising through the ranks at breakneck speed, Víctor displayed a motivation unlike the others.

As a result, he received a hammerless .38 special with increased responsibilities of overseeing lower level drug-runs.

However, the power granted to Víctor did not come without its fair share of consequences. Accompanying his talent was a significant amount of arrogance, oftentimes landing him in trouble.

His first run-in with the law occurred when he was caught beating a neighborhood boy for riding his bicycle through his mother’s flower garden.

As the police pulled into the lot, Víctor removed the revolver from his pocket and opened fire.

At first, not knowing they were being targeted by a child, the officers returned fire, causing him to run.

Observing him sprint away, they proceeded to approach the injured boy.

Crawling underneath an abandoned truck, Víctor once again began shooting, hitting one of the officers in the leg.

With the other returning to the patrol car to call for backup, Víctor strolled passed the first, shooting him in the chest.

Running up behind the other, he pulled the officer’s weapon from its holster, emptying the magazine into his back.

Both officers murdered in cold blood on his mother’s front lawn, she watched from a distance, standing in horror as Víctor drug the bodies into the patrol car before setting it ablaze.

“Víctor, what have you done,” asked Amada. “What has happened to my beautiful Víctor?”

“I am protecting you, mamá,” he replied.

“Protecting me? Ortega has filled your mind with lies. You know better than this. If you father was here, he would—”

“Father is dead,” interrupted Víctor.

“You are right, he is. Murdered by the very man you kill for. You get out of here and you never come back.”

“He promised to take care of you. Look how I can provide,” he pleaded, tossing her a roll of money.

“I do not desire this blood money. I would rather die a poor widow, than live on someone else’s death,” she replied, hurling the money into the car fire.

“What have you done? That was hard earned. It was for you, for a better home.”

“Earned by murdering policía? By beating children when a simple scolding would do? These children used to be your friends. What has happened to you, my dear son?”

“That filth was being disrespectful to you. He rode his bicycle through your flowers. He needed to be punished. I was only watching over you.”

“And killing those policía? Who was that protecting? You? Because it was not protecting me.”

“You do not understand,” yelled Víctor.

“I do understand. You are a monster. Go! Do not ever return,” she said, pointing for him to leave.

“I love you, mamá.”

“I loved my Víctor, but you are not him. I do not know who you are anymore, and I do not want you here.”

“But, I—”

“But nothing, go,” she ordered.

As he turned to leave, he could hear his mother grieving. A small part of him wanted to run and embrace her, never leave her side again.

But, it was too late. He was in too deep. If she could not accept his new life, he would never see her again. It was that simple.

“I love you, mamá,” he whispered, wiping away his tears. “I am sorry.”

 

~

 

“What is the matter, Víctor? You look as if you have been crying,” asked Ortega.

“I just saw my mother for the last time,” he replied, attempting to hide his heartbreak.

“She gave you the speech, yes?”

“Speech? How do you know what she said?”

“It is a speech almost every mother gives her child before they come to be with me.”

“It is? Does she mean it?”

“Do not worry, Víctor. She will come around. Give her time. Until then, you can live here, with me.”

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Very few new recruits stay with their familias. Most are treated badly, like how your mother treated you.

“This is why I have opened my home, created a fortress. You are safe with me, accepted by all within these walls.”

“But, what about my mother? She cannot work.”

“I will continue to provide for her. The money you are paid is yours to spend. If you wish, I will match what you send her.”

“You will,” asked Víctor. “But wait,” he continued, putting his head down. “She will never accept it. She no longer loves me. She told me so.”

“Ah, she still loves you, Víctor. She just does not yet understand the good we do. Never worry, I have a contact at the parish. I will give him the money. He will ensure your mother receives it as a gift from the church.”

“Look at me,” continued Ortega, lifting Víctor’s head with his hand, “I will always take care of your madre. She is your familia, you are my familia, and that will never change.”

 

~

 

“How old is the boy,” asked Isabella, Ortega’s wife.

“Víctor is nine.”

“And you wish to bring him into our home? The recruits live in the barracks. Why would he not join the others?”

“I sense a connection. The boy has much potential.”

“I have never known you to blur the lines between business and personal, but it is your operation. If you trust the boy, then so be it. Bring him here.”

“This is my wife, Isabella, my daughter, María,” said Ortega, leading Víctor into his home.

“Very nice to meet you,” said Víctor.

“María, show Víctor to his room,” said Isabella.

Settled outside of town on a forty-seven acre farm, Ortega’s operation flourished.

Concealed behind a fifteen-foot stone wall layered with barbed wire, his illegal activities remained unseen by the police for years.

Positioned at guard-posts and every outbuilding, the others patrolling the grounds, all activity was monitored by his guards twenty-four hours a day. It was clear to everyone who knew the Ortega name, he lived untouchable.

“This house is huge,” said Víctor.

“Twelve thousand square feet is massive,” replied Ortega, “just enough to make a man feel like a king.”

“Where do the others stay,” asked Víctor.

“There are barracks out back, across from the laboratories,” replied Ortega. “Everything from growing to shipping is conducted in out-buildings. Nothing comes into this house. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir”

“Very well. Now wash up. It is time to eat.”

 

~

 

As the years passed, Víctor and María’s relationship grew. From acquaintances to a level Ortega strictly forbade, it came as a shock to all when she wound up pregnant.

“We must tell your padre,” said Víctor.

“I agree, but let us think on it first,” replied María.

“What is there to think about? If we wait and he finds out another way, he will send me away, or worse.”

“He will not. He loves you.”

“You are his only child, his only daughter. I am dead,” replied Víctor. “He is going to kill me.”

“No, I am fourteen. You are sixteen. We are old enough to be parents. He will watch over us.”

“If you believe this, then let us do it now. I do not wish to wait any longer.”

 

~

 

“So, how long have you known,” asked Ortega.

“Five weeks, sir,” replied Víctor.

“I was not asking you.”

“My apologies, sir”

“Well,” asked Ortega, returning his attention to María.

“He is correct, father,” said María. “We have known for five weeks.”

“And you are just now telling your mother and me. Why is this? I thought we kept a trust for one another.”

“Víctor and I were scared of what you might do to us and our baby.”

“You are my daughter, the child you are carrying is my grandchild, Víctor is its padre. I would do nothing to hurt any of you.

“Your age is a little young, but you can stay here, work for me. Once we expand, you will have your own operation, your own branch.”

“What will you name the child,” asked Isabella.

“If it is a boy, we will name it Abelardo after grandfather,” replied María, “a girl, Amada.”

“This is fantastic news,” said Ortega. “We must call the family and celebrate. Isabella, phone the chefs, have them cook something for the occasion. It must be perfect.”

 

~

 

With three times more experience than half of Ortega’s men twice his age, Víctor continued pursuing an increase of power, eventually gaining the position of second in command.

An advancement of this magnitude only served to bolster an already uncontrollable depravity, fueling his ego beyond recognition, his actions further unchecked.

By the time he turned eighteen, his metamorphosis was complete. Finally transformed into the savage Ortega spent years crafting, Víctor had become an unstoppable force, someone even Ortega started to fear.

With a clear-cut proposal and an unmistakable drive, Víctor was unrelenting in his quest to develop a division of the cartel dealing specifically with paramilitary tactics.

Operating as Ortega’s personal hit squad, they would act as his enforcers, aiding in the expansion of his operations, the seizure of whatever land he desired. No territory would be off-limits.

“You have my seal of approval, but I still do not understand where you are planning to acquire these men,” said Ortega, pouring himself a drink.

“You network is vast. With contacts inside the military, it will not be difficult to persuade some to join.”

“This is what you are planning? To recruit members of the Mexican Army’s Elite Forces? You are loco.”

“Not recruit, buy-off. Everyone has a price, you taught me that. You also taught me to always have the available funds.

“With the current dissention among the ranks, our opportunity to act is now. I believe that with adequate compensation, even the most loyal members will fold. It is just a matter of timing and perhaps a mild amount of pressure.”

“You will have one year to entertain this idea. If it is successful, we will meet to discuss your future plans. If you fail, we will also meet, the conversation less pleasant.”

“Thank you for your trust, sir.”

“Of course, Víctor”

 

~

 

Dedicating the following months to the creation and implementation of his plan, Víctor moved swiftly, with great intent, noticing results enough to ensure Ortega’s continued approval.

I must tell him, thought Víctor, barging in to his office. He will be pleased.

“What is it, Víctor,” asked Ortega. “I am preparing for a meeting.”

“My apologies, Ortega. It is just that I have acquired your men,” he replied, taking a seat near the window.

“I do not understand. What men,” asked Ortega, continuing his work despite the interruption.

“Six months ago, you—”

“Yes, yes I know,” interrupted Ortega. “I sent you out to entertain your little fantasy. I said we would meet in one year, not six months. Why are you here?”

“I have recruited one hundred three men from the Mexican Army’s Elite Forces. They have been paid, briefed, and through my most rigorous entry process. Eighty-seven remain. They are awaiting your instruction.”

Ortega dropped his pen. Standing, he walked with uncertainty over to his office window. “I am in disbelief.”

“Did you not believe I could accomplish this?”

“I did not, but this is incredible, Víctor. A development as significant as such will increase our presence in both Americas, providing the edge we have needed to end this constant struggle.”

“With these men onboard, there is nothing we cannot do,” he replied. “To hell with the Americas, let us take Europe, West Africa, and Asia.”

“A conversation for another day, Víctor. Right now, I must address my men,” he said, reaching for the door.

“Of course, sir.”

“And, Víctor?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Your actions will not go unrecognized.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

~

 

“Three months ago, one hundred three of you walked through that door into my training camp,” yelled Ortega, “eighty-seven walked out. Those who are still standing have what it takes. It is that simple. The others did not.

“These last few months, you have been conditioned, trained, tested, pushed, broken; all to examine how deep your loyalty runs.

“Today, I am pleased with each of you. This is the only reason you are still here, alive. Tomorrow, that may change. You are dismissed.”

 

~

 

“Víctor, Ortega will see you now,” said Eusebio, one of Ortega’s office guards.

“Very well,” replied Víctor. “Allow me fifteen minutes to finish this task.”

“His orders were urgent. You must cease your work,” said Eusebio, raising his weapon level with Víctor’s chest.

“What is the matter with you, raising your weapon to me? Have you lost your mind?”

“Orders are orders. This is nothing personal, sir,” replied Eusebio, guiding Víctor into Ortega’s office.

“Ortega, what is the matter with you? Ordering a guard to escort me like a traitor into your office to be shot? What is the meaning of this,” he asked, slamming the door behind him.

“I am placing you in charge of this new division.”

“Excuse me,” he asked, not believing what he had just heard.

“You have been loyal to me for fifteen years. During this time, you have not once resisted.

“Setting yourself at my feet, you have allowed me to mold you into who I knew you could become. You truly are my protégé, Víctor. It is time we become partners.”

“What will we call it,” asked Víctor.

“This honor is yours,” replied Ortega.

“Very well. I will call it El Diablo.”

“You have held this name for a very long time. I suppose you remember its origin?”

“The woman in the grocery store,” replied Víctor, trying to recall what had happened all those years ago.

“She was your second kill. She looked you in the face, and with her dying words called out El Diablo.”

“This is correct. Yes, I remember now. You began calling me El Diablo that very day. I suppose it has stuck with me.”

“Indeed it has, and now it will continue. Your reputation precedes you, Víctor.”

“It brings a certain level of fear to our enemies. Our allies even shutter at this name.”

“It carries the fear you have spent years establishing. As I have told you, there is power in words.”

“Then, it is final. El Diablo it shall be.”

 

~

 

“I agree,” said Ortega’s first lieutenant, joining him and the others in the decision room. “Bringing Víctor into the fold has been quite profitable. But, it is my opinion you granting him a level of power never granted to anyone before is dangerous.”

“Víctor stumbled a little in the beginning,” replied Ortega, relighting his cigar, “but it has been over a year now and he has not once stepped out of line.”

Ortega’s brother poured himself a drink. “In fact,” he said, “he is plowing his way deeper into South America as we speak.

“We have doubled our cocaine output due in large to his tenacity. He is a driving force. And frankly, is exceptional at what he does.”

“Do not forget the optimal growing land he just acquired,” said Ortega’s nephew, resting his feet on the dining table.

“We have been after that for years. Granted, he caused a turf dispute with the Colombians, but it was not anything El Diablo could not handle.”

“Let us not forget why I called this meeting,” said Ortega. “With increased revenue, Víctor is moving to procure trafficking routes both locally and further northwest.”

“The bloodshed will be great,” said Ortega’s brother. “Is the acquisition worth the loss?”

“The media has labeled us as the most dangerous cartel operating inside of Mexico,” replied Ortega. “The resistance from our rivals has been nonexistent since El Diablo’s inception.”

“How about I make you a deal,” asked Víctor, as he kicked-in the locked door.

“Víctor, what in the—”

“Save it,” he interrupted. Taking a seat at the head of the table, he continued. “Allow me to take the routes. In return, El Diablo will expand the skillset of your grunts.

“It is no secret that your operations have been lacking. By making this deal, it secures your continued success with your various supplemental operations.”

The men stared at one another in silence.

“Well,” said Víctor, slamming his hands down on the table, “talk it over. Let me know.”

“He is out of control, Ortega,” whispered his first lieutenant. “He must be dealt with.”

El Diablo has outgrown us,” replied Ortega. “We no longer sustain it, we rely on it. If I cross him, not only will he kill me, but those who remain will be subject to him.”

“Are you saying we must comply out of fear,” asked Ortega’s brother. “This is unacceptable. The Ortega name instills fear. We do not cower.”

“For now, we must,” replied Ortega. “It is simply a matter of self-preservation. But I assure you, it will not be forever. El Diablo will fall. No one steals my throne.”

 

~

 

María walked out onto their private balcony to catch the last glimpse of the sunset. “I am so happy father gave you his blessing,” she said.

“I have been with your father for seventeen years,” replied Víctor, speaking to her from the bed, “since I was four. We have an understanding, him and me.”

María placed her hand on her ballooned stomach. “I know we have one son together and are about to have another. Still, I never thought he would allow us to marry.”

Víctor joined her on the balcony.

“San Juan is beautiful, Víctor.”

“As are you, María.”

They shared a kiss.

“I am sorry we must stay here until the child is born. I do not understand why the doctors refuse me to travel,” said María, turning to go inside.

Víctor followed behind. “This doctor is your uncle,” he replied, “a respectable man in his field. We must heed his words. Besides, I will not have you traveling this close to the delivery of my son.”

“Have you chosen a name,” she asked, pulling the bed sheets back.

“I would like to call him Carlos.”

María smiled. “Then Carlos it will be.”

 

~

 

The year was 1982. Cruz Ortega was set to announce his retirement and name his successor at his sixty-fifth birthday celebration.

Long ago, rumors began circulating amongst the grunts that Víctor was a shoe-in, but no one could be certain.

Anxiety ran rampant as the rising tension bred further distrust and paranoia.

Ortega always considered Víctor a visionary and a strategist. Highly motivated, he always pushed the boundaries, building the cartel into something Ortega never could have dreamed.

Constantly changing direction, pressuring those around him, and being Ortega’s favorite angered those not in agreement.

For years, Ortega’s empire relied upon moderate-level drug trafficking, nothing more. Believing Víctor to be the driving force behind Ortega losing sight of his original mission, the lieutenants proposed a significant change.

“You have allowed Víctor’s love of power and money to entice you into even more extreme acts of violence,” whispered Ortega’s brother. “Do not leave your legacy with him. Please, he is out of control.”

“Go sit down, enjoy the party,” replied Ortega, climbing the stairs onto the stage. “You are always worrying about things you shouldn’t.”

His brother offered a concerned smile before joining the others in the crowd.

“Thank you all for coming to my party. It means a lot to an old rat like myself,” said Ortega, taking the stage, a bottle in hand.

“You are not old,” replied many in the crowd.

“Thank you for your lies. The truth, though, is that I am too old. Do you believe I have been in this business for over fifty years?

“Fifty-three,” replied a man in the crowd.

“It has been a great ride, especially these last twenty years. But, it is time for the next generation to step up and take charge.

“It is time for me to retire somewhere nice with my beautiful wife Isabella, my daughter and grandchildren.

“This is why I am turning the business over to my nephew, Estéban. He is a great young man with promise, who will stay true to the Ortega name. He is someone you can trust to always—”

“Come again,” interrupted a half drunken Víctor. “Estéban? You are putting Estéban in charge? You must be joking. After everything I have done for you?

“You were nothing before me, just some half-ass, middleman, drug dealing bastard with no clear sight of anything. I made your empire what it is today. Me, not Estéban.”

“Simmer down, Víctor,” mocked Ortega. “This is the Ortega cartel, not the Ramirez cartel. While you make an unmatchable number two, you never had a solid shot at my throne.

“It will always stay with my family. Something you do not know much about. If you somehow believed otherwise, I’m afraid it was a delusion.”

“You took me into your home; let me have your daughter. Of course I believed you would put me in charge, you crazy, old fool. I have been like a son to you.”

“You mean nothing to me,” shouted Ortega. “You were like a wounded dog I nursed back to health because I felt pity. I knew I could use you to do my bidding and when I was finished, I could throw you out.”

“Is that so,” asked Víctor. “Very well. You see, it had crossed my mind you might take this stand, which is why I developed a contingency plan of my own.

“Although, I sincerely hoped you would not, I felt it was inevitable. And since I am not an Ortega—”

“A contingency plan? What is this supposed to mean?”

“After working together for all these years, you never really knew me. Crossing me at this juncture, betraying me as you have, you should have known better.”

“I should have known better? You speak as though I answer to you. You truly have lost yourself, Víctor. It is time for you to leave.”

“I am not going anywhere. This is my empire.”

“Whatever you say, Víctor,” replied Ortega, signaling four guards to escort him out of the compound.

“By the way,” he continued, “my daughter and grandchildren are staying with me. You are officially relieved of you duties. Your contributions have been noted.”

Usted estúpido hijo de puta,” said Víctor, hurling an unopened bottle of champagne at the stage. “If you think for one second this is over, you are much more ignorant than I believed.”

“Get him out of here,” ordered Ortega.

As the guards surrounded Víctor, they paused, before turning to face Ortega, standing at attention.

“What are you waiting for? Remove him this instant,” demanded Ortega.

“It appears you do not hold the same authority you once did,” said a grinning Víctor. “You see, these men answer to me. They are loyal to me, their supreme leader.”

“The hell they do. They are on my payroll. They belong to me. Kill him!”

“It is not difficult to understand, really. These men have worked their culos off balancing multiple new and existing revenue streams.

“You, in turn, have compensated them quite generously, awarding them a percentage of the take.

“Without these revenue streams, though, they would not be paid. So, in essence, they pay their own salaries, a commission if you will.

“Fortunately for me, they feel indebted, not to you, but to me. This is because unlike you, I appreciate their tireless efforts, work side-by-side with them in the trenches. I have gained their loyalty.”

“You do not want to do this, Víctor. I was only relieving you of your duties until you cooled down, a temporary measure.

“You have become much too aggressive, something I will not tolerate. You are still my best lieutenant. I would never betray you.”

“Humiliating me in front of my family, my men, the entire cartel? This is not betrayal to you? You are filth, a cockroach that must be squashed.”

Removing his weapon from its holster was the signal. Emerging from all corners, his men began annihilating everyone present.

Having strategically placed his soldiers throughout the compound, Víctor was careful to ensure not one Ortega lived.

Once the gunfire came to an end, his guards signaling, the task accomplished, he victoriously strolled over to Ortega’s bullet ridden corpse, kicking it off the stage onto the ground.

“Good riddance,” he whispered, picking the microphone up off the chair it had landed on when Ortega fell limp.

“In case you are not familiar, I am called El Diablo,” said Víctor, addressing the crowd, “your new leader.

“As the entire Ortega clan bleeds out onto the ground, the entire bloodline disappearing into the earth, I have graciously offered to step in and run things.

“I plan to reinvent this place,” he continued, laughing as he poured the remnants of Ortega’s drink onto his corpse.

“We will accomplish great things together. We will be unstoppable, unrelenting, unhindered, feared by all. We will take the world by storm. We are El Diablo.”

El Diablo,” yelled a man in the crowd, beginning a chant picked up by many others.

“You will never get away with this,” yelled a man in the front. “We will never yield. You are a pig. Ortega was a good man, a superb leader. You are the filth, the cockroach.”

Víctor responded by sticking two fingers into the air, the crowd looking on as one of Víctor’s men advanced from the rear, stabbing the man in the throat.

“If anyone should disagree with decisions regarding future matters, feel free to voice your concerns.

“However, if I disagree, you will die. If you complain without cause, you will die. If you rebel like this man, you will die. I will not tolerate weakness or disrespect.”

Just as he turned to sit in Ortega’s chair, a shot rang out. Víctor dropped to the floor in agony. He had been hit in the leg.

“You will not get away with this,” screamed Ortega, struggling to stand.

“Is that right, old man,” asked Víctor. “Look around you. Your family is dead. I am the new leader. There is nothing left to discuss. Give up and die.”

Raising his revolver to shoot him a second time, Víctor reached for his sidearm. Emptying his magazine into Ortega’s chest before he could get a shot off, he was met by two guards, who assisted him to his feet.

“Listen to me,” said Víctor. “You just witnessed me murder your leader. The man who raised me, provided for me. This man was like a father to me. Let this be a lesson. No one is off limits. I will destroy anyone who gets in my way.

“Stay with me, stay out of my way, you will live. But, do not be deceived, no one leaves this compound until a decision has been reached regarding your loyalty to me, and to this organization.”

 

~

 

With more than half of Ortega’s remaining crew resisting, the next several months proved more problematic than Víctor could have envisioned.

Forced to eliminate them in a battle no one emerged from unscathed, he rapidly gained full control of El Diablo.

One year after the takeover, operations finally returning to normal, resistance an anomaly, María gave birth to their third and final child, a son, Severiano “Seve” Ramirez.

Despite recent events, María proceeded with life as normal. Confident, supportive, love-struck, she was convinced Víctor acted in self-defense against her father, the enemy.

It was through a lifelong exploitation of her emotions that Víctor ever so slowly manipulated her into accepting the blurry logic of his lies.

To him, she amounted to nothing more than just another pawn in a long line of collateral damage he considered necessary to maintain his power.

After the war, there were significant vacancies to fill, as the organizational set-back took its toll.

As was the custom, Víctor first engaged his lieutenants, seeking out those whose reputations preceded them. Commissioning recruiters, he acquired well-trained men from various militia groups and opposing cartels.

To maintain diversity of skillsets, he required a minimum of one soldier from every reputable criminal organization within a two hundred mile radius, wasting no time in rebuilding his empire.

Functioning at full-steam for the first time since the takeover, operations were expanding, revenue increasing, fear wider spread.

The one rumor El Diablo’s rivals knew to be true: you oppose Víctor, you disappear—forever.

 

~

 

Raising his boys as budding leaders, future successors of the cartel, Víctor trained them to be carbon copies of their father.

Unlike Ortega, he delegated the recruiting process, focusing solely on developing his children, ensuring they embraced their inner depravity, much like he did.

“Abelardo, my son,” said Víctor, entering his office, a package in hand.

“One minute, father,” replied Abelardo, standing over a world map. “I must determine the most efficient routes in Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, and of course Winnipeg.”

“These are the cities with which you have new business?”

Abelardo nodded. “We are preparing for our first shipment. We have never been so far north or south, father. I am honored to be taking on such an operation.”

Víctor smiled. “A gift for you,” he said, scooting the package from the edge of the desk to the center.

“The legendary dagger,” he asked in disbelief.

Víctor nodded. “My first kill,” he whispered. “I want you to have it.”

“Father, I—”

“Now, I hear the territory disputes with the Nuevo Laredo cartel are unrelenting.”

“Yes, father. I—”

“I approve your request to engage. They have been a thorn in my side for many years.”

“Thank you, father. I will assembly my men tonight. We will strike at first light.”

 

~

 

“Congratulations are in order, son,” said Víctor, reclining in his desk chair. “Initial reports claim the Nuevo Laredo cartel was decimated in the attack. We must now absorb their resources. Do you wish to lead in the transition?”

“I do not,” replied Abelardo, grinning. “I wish to assume control of our escort services in Dallas, the unlimited supply of women.”

“Abelardo, I can assure you it is much more complicated than sleeping with beautiful women,” replied Víctor. “In fact, they are off limits to you. It is a client-only operation.”

“Then I will pay,” said Abelardo.

“No. You will be in charge. You will oversee operations from abduction through transport to destination. It is a massive, currently flawless operation. I intend to keep it this way.”

“I understand. I will respect every process, father. It will be a seamless transition. Allow me to prove myself.”

“Very well,” replied Víctor, pulling a file from a locked cabinet. “Let us get you up to speed. There is much you must learn.”

 

~

 

“You are not Cortez,” said the coyote.

“I am not,” replied Abelardo.

“You are the new man in charge?”

“This is correct. Why is this of interest to you?”

“No reason. I noticed the new orders from Víctor, picking girls from villages that were previously off limits. I wondered where the change had occurred.”

“We must go where the beauty is,” said Abelardo.

“I’m with you, boy. This has got to be the best batch I’ve ever brought over.”

“Then what is the problem? And I am not a child; I am eighteen, a man.”

“This route is unfamiliar. I thought it was owned by the Nuevo Laredo cartel. Why are we working it?”

“It is now property of El Diablo. It is safe.”

“Where is the transport?”

“The managers are en route. I am only here to observe, to better understand the operation.”

“Managers? Cortez always did both.”

“I am not Cortez. And another layer of management ensures we maintain anonymity. I will not be seen here. If you cause problems for the managers, they will report to me and I will notify Víctor.”

“So, are these managers going to have my money?”

“Yes. You will pass the girls to the managers. There you will be compensated per head. You will receive three thousand dollars for every living woman.”

“Three? Cortez was only paying two.”

“Are you questioning my generosity?”

“No. The risk is much higher than ever before. It is becoming expensive to stay beneath the radar.”

“I do not wish for this operation to fail over a few payroll dollars. This would be unacceptable.”

“Agreed.”

 

~

 

“Father, I enjoy this work,” said Abelardo.

“Your performance proves such. The percentages are exceptional. I could not be more proud.”

“How is the extension coming along back home?”

“The men of Matamoros are enjoying the new branch. We are doing well, thanks to your efforts.

“I assume you call for a different reason?”

“I wish to expand the Coyotaje to include men and infants. There is money to be made in agriculture. I want a piece of it.”

“Agriculture? My boy, a farmer,” laughed Víctor.

“I recently purchased a ranch near the border. With a labor arrangement, we could see an acceptable profit.”

“You have my trust. I authorize you blanket authority to seed different ventures so long as you maintain you sense. Keep operations under control. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now, tell me about this illegal adoption trade.”

“In performing my due diligence, I stumbled upon an organization with which I believe we should partner. They hold a legitimate name in the adoption business spanning nearly one hundred years.”

“By partner with, you mean—”

“Conduct a business meeting in the Mojave desert,” interrupted Abelardo.

“Very well. Keep me informed.”

“Have you spoken with Carlos?”

“I have. Why do you ask?”

“About two months ago, he mentioned our operation in Mena, the mountain drop. I did not have the time to discuss it. He sounded shaken. What in the hell happened up there?”

“The chopper was spotted by some woman hiker. I had to call in Juan to finish the job.”

El Limpiador? I guess they never found the body?”

Víctor sighed. “Juan’s initial attempt proved unsuccessful, as did Griego’s in keeping the family at bay. The boy’s curiosity almost cost Juan his life.”

“How is this possible?”

“The boy and his father displayed superb martial arts skills. It is difficult to admit, but Juan was no match.”

“But, Carlos took care of it? Wiped that puta off the face of the earth?”

“The loose ends were tied. Griego hanged himself moments after being booked in county. Unfortunately, the identity of the woman died with him.”

“Their collective performance was sloppy, quite unlike Carlos, especially Juan.”

“It was an unacceptable situation which must never happen again. As a corrective measure, Juan was ordered to increase his numbers to three before returning to business.”

“I must go,” said Abelardo. “I have a meeting with a weapons client in twenty minutes.”

“Weapons? What happened to men and infants?”

“Blanket authority. Remember, padre?”

“Arms dealers are dangerous, as are their clients. To maintain dominance, you must hold the upper hand. Intimidation is the key. If they outnumber you, you have already lost your power.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And Abelardo?”

“Yes, padre?”

“Happy twenty-seventh birthday. Your mother will be thrilled to see you. You will be in tonight?”

“Yes, tonight. Now, I must go. I cannot be late to my first deal. Goodbye, padre.”

“See you tonight, son.”

 

~

 

“Nice hummer,” said Abelardo, as he climbed out the back of his van, “although the color could be darker for such a meeting as this.”

“You don’t like white,” replied John in a thick southern accent, the leader of the El Paso faction of The White Resistance.

“White is good, black is better for our business.”

“You Abelardo,” asked John.

“This is correct. Are you John?”

“That’s my name,” he replied, extending his hand. “So tell me, Abel, what kinda gear you got?”

“Just as we discussed over the phone,” replied Abelardo, popping open the three crates with his crow bar. “It would be easier if I showed you.”

“Wow,” chuckled John, “I see AK-47’s, Colt AR-15 A3 Tactical Carbine’s, M4 Carbine’s with grenade launchers, M203 grenade launchers, 40mm rifle mount grenade launchers—”

“I also have 30 caliber Browning Machine Guns, RPG-7’s, delta sheets, pump action shot guns of many different gauges, tactical vests, full body armor, hand grenades,” interrupted Abelardo, handling each weapon for their careful review.

“And all the magazines are Beta C-Mag with belt feed capability,” he continued.

“You really know your guns, man.”

“I told you, you would not be disappointed.”

“Where’d you get all this stuff, anyway?”

“This is none of your concern. Just know it is untraceable, my supply unlimited.

“Now, where is my payment?”

“Yeah, yeah, of course,” replied John, snapping his fingers, signaling for one of his men to hand him the duffle.

“Here ya go, Abel,” he continued, tossing it to him.

Unzipping the bag, Abelardo pulled out a few bundles. “This is not money. These are chucks of blank paper taped together! What is this?”

“We figure since this is our first deal with you, we’ll take a discount,” replied John. “A one hundred percent discount,” he said, bursting into laughter.

Abelardo reached under his shirt for his fully automatic Glock 45.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he said.

“Is that so? If I had cheated you, would you not pull your weapon on me,” asked Abelardo, the red dot from his laser sights steadying in the center of John’s forehead.

“I would not pull my weapon on you,” he replied, removing his sidearm from its holster, sliding it over to Abelardo.

In this act, the signal was given. Before John’s weapon finished sliding across the pavement, four of his men emerged from the shadows, positioned in all corners of the lot, effectively surrounding Abelardo.

“Military grade M16A4’s with duckbill flash suppressors,” said Abelardo. “What do you want my weapons for? It appears you have everything you need right here.”

“Those cost us everything we had, plus a couple of our best guys. We can’t afford for that to happen again.”

“John, this was supposed to be a clean deal. You need a supplier, I need a customer. How about you keep your money, I keep my weapons, we both walk away?”

Distracted by one of his guards, John glanced away, missing Abelardo remove a grenade attached to his belt, the darkness of night concealing it within the palm of his hand.

“My chief guard just informed me the perimeter has been swept. You’re entirely alone. You do realize this is an abandoned airstrip with nothing for miles?”

“I would not say alone,” replied Abelardo.

“Oh, sorry, he didn’t count your imaginary friend.”

“Do we have a deal? We both walk away?”

“You are one thick-headed hombre. So, let me reiterate. We are taking your weapons, and not paying you. What about that don’t you understand?”

“I do not think you understand the part where I kill all of you, piss on your bodies, and take my weapons,” replied Abelardo, using his thumb to pop the pin loose.

“You and what army, boy,” asked John.

El ejército de infierno,” whispered Abelardo, tossing the grenade underneath the hummer.

Jumping into his van, he sped away, the grenade blowing the hummer to the sky, nearly taking him with it.

 

~

 

“FBI Las Vegas Field Office, SAC Rodriguez’s office,” said the secretary on the other end of the line.

“This is Eduardo’s uncle. A family emergency requires his involvement. I need to speak with him right away.”

“No problem, sir. I see you here on his list of verified callers, transferring you now.”

“Thank you.”

“SAC Rodriguez. With whom am I speaking?”

“It is me, you idiot,” replied Víctor.

“Are you insane phoning me on this line?”

“Excuse me?”

“Sorry, sir. It’s just the other line is much more secure. This line is recorded, the playback monitored.”

“I own the weasel down in telecommunications. He erases all traces of our conversations. Nothing remains.”

“Okay,” sighed Eduardo. “What do you need?”

“It is Abelardo. I have not heard from him in eight days. He was set to make his first weapons deal before driving home for his birthday celebration.”

“So, you think he is at one of your casinos celebrating on his own?”

“Perhaps. Check it out. Get back to me soon.”

“He swore me to silence, but Abel phoned me a few days ago, asked me to help him get off the grid.”

“I am not following. He mentioned none of this to me. Why would he keep secrets from me? I am his father.”

“His weapons deal went south. He didn’t listen to you and went in alone. He almost died.”

“The stupid fool.”

“He asked me to fake his death. He seeks revenge on The White Resistance.”

“Major Crimes in El Paso bought this?”

“I’m the FBI. Of course they bought it.”

“This is what Abelardo desired?”

“He stressed to me his wish to maintain power. Does this make sense to you?”

“Thank you, Eduardo.

“Of course, sir.”

“Get in touch with him. Have him phone me. I will not have him retaliate alone. We go in strong, or not at all.”

 

~

 

“My sons, much time has passed since we last shared a meal. And what a momentous occasion this is, as the White Resistance exists no longer.”

“We are El Diablo,” Carlos yelled. “We come with fire.”

“And that you did,” replied Víctor. “Setting the place ablaze certainly accelerated the delivery of the message.”

“What about the message we left,” asked Seve. “Do you think they fear us?”

“They would if there were any still alive,” laughed Carlos. “The news reports over five hundred died, spanning four states, seven compounds. They’re calling it the most prolific group slaying in history.”

El Diablo’s name has never carried so much weight in the United States,” said Víctor. “Taking the blame has strengthened our relationships with allies, increased the fear of our enemies.

“Carlos, Seve, go join the celebration. I wish to have a word with your brother.”

The brothers dismissed themselves.

“Your actions are comforting, Abelardo.”

“I do not understand.”

“I know you were counting on the white supremacists betraying you. This was never about arms dealing. Your goal was to instill fear in the United States.”

Abelardo smiled.

Víctor shook his head. “North America is yours.”

Abelardo sat speechless.

“Effective immediately, you are in charge of all operations inside the region.”

“What about Carlos, Seve?”

“Carlos is fixated on Australia, and Seve wants South America. They are in support of this decision.”

“Thank you, father. I will not let you down.”

“Very well, son. I have no doubt.”

 

~

 

Carlos sat alone on the patio, his thoughts far from Matamoros and their recent victory.

He leaned forward in the patio chair, resting his elbows on his knees, cupping his face in his hands.

This is all ill-timed, he thought. The Australian market is an untapped reservoir. I must be the first to engage their criminal element.

“That is it,” he said, jumping to his feet. “I will fly to Sydney; learn their operations firsthand, to hell with telecommunication. It is time El Diablo takes a vacation.”

Frequenting several local establishments known for their biker gang presence, Carlos observed firsthand the extent of Australia’s criminal underworld.

As the days passed, he found himself engaging in conversation with their leaders, forging relationships through a mutual distrust of the local law enforcement.

Manipulating his way into a status of rapport, he decided the time was right to offer a business proposition.

“Is it difficult being an all-female group in a male dominated society,” he asked, ordering another round for the table.

“Initially, I think that held true, but we’ve built our name. We’ve gained our respect.”

“You are referred to on the streets as The L.K.?”

“Yes, but I think I speak for most of these ladies when I say we prefer to be called The Lady Killers.”

“Very well, Lady Killers,” said a smiling Carlos. “Tell me, what do you know about cocaine?”

 

~

 

Much to Carlos’ displeasure, local marketing advanced at a most lethargic rate. Unsuccessful in his attempts to convince others to join, his diligence ultimately paid off in 2005, securing El Diablo a limited presence.

Seven years later, they were still the sole provider of cocaine on the continent, having dominated the market.

“I should not share with you such information,” said Carlos, tossing a kilo of cocaine into the air, “but in the United States, this sells for fifteen thousand dollars.”

“Not possible, mate,” replied BigDog, the leader of The Lady Killers.

“I am quite serious. This is why we must keep our product limited. Otherwise, we run the risk of saturating the market.”

“We’re bringing in just over two hundred fifty thousand American dollars per kilo,” said BigDog. “It would take forever for that to happen.”

“Maybe so,” replied Carlos, turning to leave. “But, this is something I wish never to encounter.”

Raising his cell into the air, he continued walking. “We will be in touch, BigDog.”

 

~

 

With much research on the horizon, Carlos opted to spend another night in Sydney.

Confident Víctor would demand much information at the next evening’s conference call, he chose to take this night for himself.

Gazing into the sunset while being escorted to the hotel, a sudden anxiety enveloped him, only shaken by pouring himself another drink.

“If I do not get some rest, my reports will be lacking,” he said, rubbing his eyes with his left forefinger and thumb. “I do not feel like getting chewed by Víctor.”

After a minor scuffle with the Shangri-La Sydney bellhop, Carlos crumpled three one hundred dollar bills in his right hand before letting them drop onto the lobby floor.

“I said I would carry my own luggage. Touch my bag again, I will break your neck and throw your limp body into the sea, never to be found.”

“Sorry, mate, just trying to help”

“You can help by staying the hell away.”

“No worries. You won’t see my face again.”

“Somehow I doubt that,” replied a smirking Carlos.

 

~

 

“I consumed too much alcohol last night,” he whispered, holding his forehead with one hand, pressing the elevator button with the other.

While attempting to enjoy a superb breakfast, he was distracted by the television, where he noticed a listing of the different time zones.

Mierda,” he exclaimed, rushing from his table back to his room. “How could I be so stupid?”

In his attempt to free his laptop from his briefcase, he broke the zipper.

Slamming the laptop onto the desk, he quickly initiated the power-up before ransacking his duffel for the world map.

He was still unrolling it onto the floor when a call came in from his laptop. It was Víctor.

“Hello, Víctor,” answered Carlos.

“Present to me your findings,” he replied.

“The information you seek has taken much longer to acquire. I am afraid at this juncture, I am only compiling information.”

“You assured me you were in charge, events under control. What is the real reason you are unprepared?”

“It matters not. The fact is—”

“The fact,” interrupted Víctor, “is that Seve and I are not disconnecting the line until I have my reports.”

“Very well,” replied Carlos. “Based on my findings, the safest, most cost-effective method starts by loading an eighteen-wheeler with cash crop, our product concealed inside.

“Transport is no trickier. Myself and Manuel will escort the product the nine hundred miles from Matamoros to Puerto Vallarta where I will board a vessel for Sydney.”

“It is too risky to port in Hawaii,” replied Víctor.

“Unless you use a cruise ship,” interjected Seve, “hiding the cocaine inside the walls.”

“I will not invest in a cruise ship until I can be certain of our success. By then, we will have perfected a method without the use of such extravagant means.”

Taking a marker from his bag, Carlos circled two small islands a considerable distance from the main shipping routes.

“For the time being, we could purchase an ocean liner, perhaps a dry bulk carrier,” he said. “Hide the cocaine under a false bottom, cover it with sugar. The—”

“Or a yacht with a helipad,” interrupted Seve.

“The standard route is Seattle to Hawaii to Japan, and then south to Sydney,” continued Carlos, ignoring his brother. “I believe I have discovered what appears to be a most secluded route.”

“I am listening,” said Víctor.

“I propose upon embarkation from Puerto Vallarta, we detour to the Republic of Kiribati, before heading southwest to the Kingdom of Tonga, and onto Sydney. This would be a most secure route, free of obstacles.”

“Bribing the locals would be a cinch,” said Seve.

“Staffing the carrier with our men would eliminate an outside crew and the risk of compromise,” said Víctor.

“You are both correct. The issue is the purchase of a carrier and training for our men,” replied Carlos. “Not to mention, meeting all carrier requirements.”

“I will phone my contact in Puerto Vallarta. He may have a captain on his payroll,” said Víctor. “Have you conducted any searches, or are you behind on this as well?”

“I have narrowed the selection down to three,” replied Carlos. “They are all local. I am certain the price you are willing to pay will conclude our search.”

“Never mind a few dollars. Pick the best of those three and let me know. I will wire you the money first thing tomorrow,” replied Víctor.

“I am projecting a first batch of twenty-five thousand kilos,” said Carlos, “a little high, but attainable.”

“Is this realistic for such a fresh market, brother,” asked Seve.

“It is. My dealers are eager, as are their clients. Rumors of a new product spread like wildfire, which brings up my next point.

“The first batch will sell for six and one quarter billion. In order to lure the Australian dealers into our game, I proposed a cut of twenty percent, or one and one quarter billion.”

“When we deliver the second batch, we kill them, taking the operation for ourselves,” interrupted Víctor.

“My sentiments exactly,” replied Carlos.

“A cut of twenty percent leaves us with five billion,” said Seve. “This is an overwhelming amount to move at one time.”

“Laundering it will be most challenging, our methods crucial,” replied Víctor. “We must think on this before we act. A wrong move at this juncture would be devastating.”

“I believe it to be much too large a sum to smurf,” said Carlos.

“The Colombian Peso Exchange is also out,” replied Víctor, “leaving our Swiss accounts and shell companies.”

“Both of which have been under recent scrutiny,” said Carlos. “Not that they will uncover any activities.”

“What do you think of Asia’s alternative banking,” asked Seve. “They do not keep any records.”

“There is another way,” said Víctor. “To invest in legitimate business, a venture I have never explored.”

“That paperwork is in depth,” replied Carlos. “It would take far too long to make it appear legitimate.”

“What about the casinos,” asked Seve.

“The casinos will clean the sum, but an annual increase of that amount would raise suspicion,” replied Carlos. “We would need to implement an additional filter.”

“Like what,” asked Seve.

“An investment broker,” replied Carlos.

“To invest it in overseas markets,” said Víctor.

“Let the feds freeze our Swiss accounts and shut down our shell companies,” interjected Seve, “we will implement a new method. One they will never figure out.”

“What can we do to assist,” asked Víctor.

“I have much preparation to accomplish in Sydney,” replied Carlos. “First, Víctor, you can wire me twenty million dollars for the carrier. This should be enough.

Seve,” continued Carlos, “It is urgent we locate an investment broker. Someone legitimate on the outside, appropriate experience, but willing to keep his mouth shut for ample payment.

“Put your feelers out, compile a list. Report back to me with your recommendation.”

“Where do I search,” asked Seve.

“You heard him,” replied Víctor. “He provided the requirements. What else do you need to know?”

“What is the search radius,” asked Seve. “Do I search local to Dallas? A one hundred mile radius?”

“This is flexible,” replied Carlos. “It is preferable he be local to Dallas, but not necessary. I am more concerned with abilities than location.”

“I understand,” replied Seve. “I will find the best broker for the task.”

“Remember,” said Carlos. “Everyone can be bought. Find his dollar amount, double it. However, if for some reason, the best cannot be bought, locate his weakness and capitalize. Do you understand?”

“I understand,” replied Seve.

“Good. Do not be hindered. If you encounter pushback of any kind, phone Juan. Los Tres Diablos will back your play.”

 

4

 

Meeting of the Minds

Carlos departed Sydney in a sixteen million dollar, black Handysize Bulk Carrier, Class BV.

Fully equipped with five cargo holds, four cranes and a deadweight tonnage capacity of twenty-three thousand metric tons, it led the market as the ideal ocean liner for the task he set out to accomplish.

Much to the inner workings of The Lady Killers, and to Carlos’ surprise, BigDog had arranged a permanent set-up with an agent at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Bribing him to certify and license the ship and crew for seaworthiness without the required inspection and drug screening was of utmost importance.

At the insistence of BigDog, Carlos procured a twenty-one man crew to steer the ship the seven thousand three hundred nautical miles from Sydney to Puerto Vallarta.

“You trust these people,” asked Carlos.

“With my life,” replied BigDog.

“This is not reassuring,” said Carlos. “I am entrusting them with something far greater than one life.”

“Look, mate, these guys are seasoned sailors. They will keep your precious boat from sinking until you make it home.

“There, you can kick ‘em off and bring on your own crew, no biggie. They’ll find their way back to me.”

“No biggie? And if it sinks due to their incompetence?”

“You did your fancy, little risk assessment. Wasn’t that surety enough?”

“This was to appease Víctor. I am still uncertain.”

“Well, either way, she was a great buy,” said BigDog. “She’ll pull a decent nineteen knots all the way.”

“Even empty?”

“Keep in mind full, you’d be lucky to hit twelve.”

“Probably closer to nine,” interjected the captain.

“I cannot spare three weeks to travel home,” said Carlos, “There is still much to get in order.”

“I’m sure we can get you there in sixteen days,” replied the captain, “tops”.

“This is unacceptable.”

“Then I suppose you should‘ve bought a better ship,” interjected BigDog.

“The miles we’re traveling, the route you insist we follow,” said the captain, lighting a cigar pulled from his shirt pocket, “puts us through the Tasman Sea, North and South Pacific.

“Avoiding the main shipping routes takes its toll. It shan’t come without a cost, mate, that cost being time.”

“Very well,” replied Carlos. “Then, let us waste no more time discussing it. Let us depart already.”

 

~

 

“Is the first batch finalized,” asked Carlos.

“All twenty-five thousand kilos,” replied Seve, just as you ordered.

“Excellent,” said Carlos. “Have the men load the truck with six thousand six hundred seventy kilos. We must depart at first light.”

“I do not understand. You ordered four times this much. These men have worked tirelessly to produce this quantity in such short time.

“It has been hell keeping on top of them and now you want less than seven?”

“Since when do you care how tirelessly our slave labor works,” asked a grinning Carlos.

“I do not. It is my schedule which has suffered. Abelardo is on me to get this branch up to speed with his.

“Those are my duties, not this. International expansion is your goal and perhaps Víctor’s. It is not mine.”

“Little brother, you have grown up in my absence,” said Carlos, patting Seve on the shoulder. “Not possessing the courage to stand up for yourself is the reason Víctor has been so hard on you.”

“Whatever, brother, just explain it to me.”

“In the specifications of the carrier lies our limitation. We are concealing the cocaine inside bags of coffee beans, under a false bottom, covered with refined sugar. This places us at our maximum capacity rather quickly.

“This means I will make four trips just for the first batch alone. We will need to employ multiple carriers if we are to continue with this venture.”

“I will have padre wire transfer an additional twenty million for a second ship, if you desire.”

“This is not necessary just yet. Allow me to present him significant revenue first, a return on investment if you will.”

“I am worried, Carlos. Víctor is more concerned about building mutual respect with a potential broker than manipulation.

“What happened to applying pressure to maintain the upper hand? I do not understand what he is thinking.”

“Do not be troubled, Seve. The first time the broker gets out of hand, Víctor will realize his error and order his execution.

“If not, I will take it upon myself to kill him. It would not be the first time I have eliminated a potential partner without padres’ knowledge or approval.”

“This explains much,” replied Seve. “Now tell me, how will you unload this once you dock in Australia?”

“The ship is a bulk in, bags out carrier,” replied Carlos. “It is equipped with cranes. They assured me it can be unloaded in less than one hour, the sugar bagged and ready for distribution.”

“I see,” said Seve.

“With no need for port cranes, we can eliminate unnecessary attention to the ship and crew, minimize the collateral damage, not that it matters to me.”

“Sometimes a smooth operation is one where minimal bodies drop. The laws are different over there.”

“Minimal bodies, maximum fear,” replied Carlos.

 

~

 

“The time is 6:22. What is the holdup,” asked Carlos, standing beside the eighteen-wheeler. “We must be one hour down the road by sunrise.”

“I am not so sure leaving when the sky is still pitch black is such a good idea, sir,” replied Manuel, grabbing his windbreaker from just inside the warehouse.

“Is it because you are still afraid of the dark,” smirked Carlos.

“The strong winds coupled with the darkness, not to mention the condition of the roadways, and the high importance of the cargo we are delivering, are all factors that must be considered. I only desire the trip to be without issue.”

“You believe I have not considered all the factors,” asked Carlos, reaching for his .45. “Are you questioning my leadership? My ability to put together an operation?”

“This is incorrect,” replied Manuel, struggling for an explanation. “It is just that I did not know if you had checked the weather forecast; if you were familiar with the roadways we will be travelling.”

“So, you are questioning my intelligence,” asked Carlos, raising his weapon to Manuel’s forehead.

“It was a misguided concern, Carlos. I apologize for entertaining the idea. You are very thorough.”

“Decent save,” he replied, placing his weapon back in its holster, “but I now question your allegiance. Your recent actions have proven your loyalty to be shifting.”

“Carlos, I—”

“Drive,” he ordered.

“At an average of fifty miles per hour, it will take us eighteen hours before arriving at the coast,” said Manuel, climbing into the rig. “This does not include stopping for gasoline and provisions.”

“Why are you telling me this,” asked Carlos. “Do you now believe me to be unable to perform basic arithmetic?

“Understand, your value is in your driving. A skill many possess. It is not a rare commodity.”

“I understand,” replied Manuel, shifting the eighteen-wheeler into drive, steering it onto the crumbling, one-lane blacktop.

Carlos removed a map from the glove compartment, their route highlighted.

“Seve attached this GPS to the windshield last night,” said Manuel, pointing to the device. “It is the model we regularly use here in Matamoros.”

Carlos remained silent, his eyes fixed on the map.

“I also have GPS capability on my cellular phone.”

“Maps are for directions, cellular phones are for talking. I keep telling Seve this. He does not listen.”

“You are correct, but these GPS devices download the latest, most up-to-date mapping. It will not guide us astray. It is more accurate than your paper version.”

“Does it tell you when we will make it to the modern roadways,” asked Carlos, “much more of this and you are going to run us off the road.”

“It is proving more difficult than I expected. We connect to the 101 in San Fernando. From there on out, with the exception of travelling through the mountains, we will be on the more modern roadways.”

“This is what I gather from the map as well,” said Carlos. “Perhaps your device is adequate.”

 

~

 

As the hours passed, so did their resources. Much to Carlos’ displeasure, Manuel insisted a first stop in Ciudad Victoria for fuel.

Continuing on to San Luis Potosi, Manuel inadvertently exited the 101, forcing them to travel a less desirable route.

Taking highway 80 straight into Guadalajara for fuel and food, they then veered onto the 90 for the most direct shot to Puerto Vallarta.

“Next time, we are taking the 101 from Matamoros,” said Carlos, breaking the silence. “While the side roads keep us out of sight, their present condition is inadequate for such a rig as this.”

Manuel nodded in agreement.

“It has been fifteen hours,” he continued. “How many more miles until we reach Puerto Vallarta?”

“We are just under two hundred miles from the docks,” replied Manuel. “It is nine thirty; we should arrive by two thirty in the morning.”

“This is if—”

“We make it to the other side of these mountains in one piece,” interrupted Manuel, the eighteen-wheeler shifting as they climbed the mountainside.

“There is a much flatter route through the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains,” said Carlos, viewing the map with a flashlight. “There is a roadway farther north. It would take longer to travel, but offers less risk.”

“Probably a piece-of-garbage one, maybe two-lane,” replied Manuel, slowing his speed to thirty, the roads narrow and crumbling, absent of guardrails.

“Probably so,” said Carlos, laying his head back. “It sounds like the wind has returned.”

“This is no joke,” whispered Manuel, his eyes wide, fixed on the road, his body tense.

“I am not laughing,” replied Carlos, covering his face with a hat Manuel had stuffed behind the seat.

 

~

 

The stress Manuel faced navigating the winding mountainside ended up more than he could handle.

No amount of coffee or energy drink could replenish what those three hours absorbed from him that day.

As they began their final descent, the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta were made visible, the next leg of the operation within sight.

A booming, immensely popular port city, Puerto Vallarta was considered safer than many surrounding cities, a staple attraction for tourists.

Free of the indomitable cartel presence, Carlos and Manuel were cautious to blend in with the locals, a basic effort to prevent possible identification by law enforcement.

Inconvenient, but not impossible, Carlos knew exactly what tattoos to cover, language to avoid when out of his element.

“What fresh hell that was,” said Manuel, glancing in the rearview mirror as he transitioned the rig onto a better maintained two-lane at the bottom of the mountain.

“Pull over. We must check the merchandise.”

“Now,” he asked, “on the highway?”

“It may pose a slight risk, but I do not wish to encounter problems at the docks. I would rather take the chance here, less eyes.”

Wasting no time scanning the bags for damage, Manuel climbed back into the rig.

“Well,” asked Carlos, now behind the wheel.

“Some have shifted but none seem damaged.”

“The mountains are behind us. This last stretch is flat. There should be no cause for concern.”

I have taken us this far, let me take us the rest of the way,” said Manuel.

“Very well,” replied Carlos, switching seats with him. “We still have four hours to go. Less talking, more driving.”

 

~

 

“You’re late,” said the dock guard.

“Only by a half hour,” replied Manuel. “Let us in.”

“Your crew arrived twenty-four hours early, as you ordered. The carrier is prepped, ready to be loaded.”

“Excellent,” said Carlos. “Alert the crew,” he ordered. “We will be backing in momentarily.”

Before Carlos could understand what happened, the crew had the cocaine concealed under the false bottoms of the holds, the refined sugar loaded on top, all set for cast-off.

Unlike his father and elder brother, Carlos lived only for the family business; social interaction for pleasure a concept beyond his grasp.

To him, people amounted to nothing more than tools used to advance his agenda, for personal gain.

Drawing his energy from successful business ventures, he often juggled multiple operations at once.

Being confined to a carrier for weeks, unable to manage his other duties, he quickly found himself losing control.

“What in the hell is taking so long,” whispered Carlos, navigating his way through the many corridors, finally relocating the bridge.

“Hiya, mate,” said the captain. “Just in time.”

“Just in time for what,” he replied.

“Are the rough waters making you a bit queasy,” asked the smiling captain, “the look on your face is absolutely dreadful.”

“One more smart-ass comment, your family is dead,” replied Carlos, masking his illness just long enough to shoot the captain an icy glare.

“One phone call and everything you live for is gone,” he chuckled.

“It, it,” the captain stuttered, “it appears we are ahead of schedule. We are mere moments from our checkpoint in Kiribati.”

“Excellent,” replied Carlos. “Maintain this speed and perhaps your son will only lose his hand, instead of his head.”

“You son of a—,” said the captain, lunging at Carlos, only to be stopped dead in his tracks by a bullet fired from Carlos’ sidearm.

“That was your number seven,” said Carlos, watching as the crewman’s lifeless body dropped to the floor.

“You can do without his services. Can the same be said for your number three,” he asked, pressing the barrel of his gun against the crewman’s temple.

“You’re a wicked man,” replied the captain. “You give the devil a run for his money and scare the hell outta me.

“We will continue to do as you ask, but no more deaths, and when we arrive in Sydney, our partnership is over.”

“You forget who is running this show,” said Carlos, firing a round into the crewman’s left foot. “I decide the terms of our partnership. I decide whether you live or die.”

 

~

 

Twenty-eight days, seventeen hours after departure, the captain radioed Carlos’ contact at the Sydney Terminal Maritime Authority for docking instructions.

“We will stay on the carrier until midnight,” said Carlos, “then we will unload the cargo.”

“Why,” asked the captain. “BigDog paid the maritime authority, just like you ordered.”

“They were compensated quite generously for their discretion,” he replied, “but one can never be too cautious.”

“I know this is your deal, but my guys have been working this cargo for four weeks. Can’t they just go into town for a couple hours and return at nightfall?”

“I am certain as soon as your crew disembarks, I will never see them again. But, I do appreciate how you are always challenging my authority.”

“This is starting to feel like more of a hostage situation than a partnership. Where is the mutual respect and shared authority?”

“They are illusions, captain,” he replied, glancing down at his watch, “ninety minutes and counting.”

 

~

 

As the clock struck midnight, Carlos led the crew into the night air. Firing up the cranes, the men worked in overdrive with Carlos monitoring their every move.

“I have overseen many operations, observed more crews than you can imagine. I have never seen one as efficient as yours,” said Carlos. “Their cohesion is impeccable. It is magnificent to observe.”

“You must be making a joke, señor,” interjected Osvaldo, a crewman Carlos picked up in Puerto Vallarta.

“I know I am only one man, but I have worked under your father’s employ for many years. Speaking with such emotion makes you sound like a puta.”

Turning, Osvaldo knelt to lift a nearby crate. “And he is supposed to be El Jefe, what a joke,” he chuckled under his breath.

Eying him as he carried the crate to the truck BigDog had procured, Carlos unsnapped the sheath on his belt, quietly removing the thirteen inch bowie knife contained inside.

Falling in line behind Osvaldo, he quickly closed the distance. Now within arm’s reach, he sprung from behind, latching onto Osvaldo’s face.

Jerking him backwards, Osvaldo hollered as Carlos plunged the knife into his neck and twisted.

As his limp body fell to the ground, his head rolling off the dock into the waters below, Carlos ordered another crewman to dispose of the remains.

Despite being four men down, the remaining crew had the 6.85 tons of refined sugar bagged, tagged and ready for distribution in just over one hour.

Never pausing for fear of death, they hurriedly lifted the false bottoms, removing the bags of cocaine.

Separating it from the coffee, half the crew transferred it to the truck while the others repackaged the beans.

By sunrise, all six thousand six hundred seventy kilos were to The Lady Killer’s new headquarters.

Acquiring a vacant office building for the sole purpose of concealing the massive quantity of cocaine, it provided the perfect cover.

“This is the last crate,” asked BigDog.

“It is the last crate of the first shipment,” clarified Carlos. “So, what do you think of the building,” he asked.

“Being hidden in plain sight is something that takes getting used to.”

“This is true, but as far as Australia is concerned, this is the new branch of a well-established art dealer from Europe. All the papers to back it up have been filed. We are above reproach.”

“I hope you’re right, mate,” she said, glancing at the artwork hanging from the walls.

Carlos remained silent.

“So,” she continued, “my ladies passed around the sample kilo as you requested.”

“And?”

“The clientele went berserk. After the first hit, they were itching for more, begging us for a full teenth. We’ve struck gold, sir.”

“I am pleased to hear this, which confirms we can move forward as projected. It will become progressively more complicated as operations get into full swing. Can I trust you with the next part of ours?”

“If it gets our product on the street and cash in my pocket faster, hell yeah.”

“Then commence selling. I will return in one month to deliver the second batch and collect my money. Until then, you will have both. Do not cross me.”

“You have nothing to worry about, mate. I don’t bite the hand that feeds me. Honor ranks high here.”

Stepping in closer, Carlos continued, “Your captain angered me while on my ship. I injured one and killed two others.

“Before I leave Sydney, those remaining will be executed, their bodies dumped in your streets. El Diablo has arrived. And I plan to stay. My presence will be known.”

BigDog stood silent, her eyes wide, fixed on his.

Pulling out his bowie knife, Carlos gripped the back of her head, forcing the blade against her neck.

Instinctively jerking back, Carlos forced it deeper into her neck, slicing her skin, a line of blood forming along the blade.

As it dripped off the tip, onto her shoulder, Carlos trapped her leg with his, thrusting her through the table and onto the floor.

“You step outside our agreement even a little bit, I will end you,” he said, wiping the blood from the knife onto his jeans before securing it in its sheath.

As he turned to leave, she considered standing, but instead remained on the floor, atop what was left of the table that had broken under her.

By noon the next day, Carlos, along with the crew Víctor had readied for him in Puerto Vallarta, disembarked from Sydney, beginning the journey home.

 

~

 

After three subsequent, equally tiring voyages, Carlos successfully transported the entire twenty-five thousand kilos to Sydney.

Four months later, BigDog made contact, assuring him the inventory had been sold, his share set-aside.

This time, travelling to Sydney via a commercial flight, his financier verified the amounts, provided BigDog with her share, and prepared what remained for shipment home.

“Just how are you planning on getting that through airport security,” asked BigDog. “I’m thinking five billion may raise a few eyebrows,” she smirked.

“This is none of your concern,” replied Carlos. “But, in the interest of new partnerships, I suppose I can divulge such information.”

“That’s nice.”

We will be journeying by yacht to Puerto Vallarta, a much more suitable way to travel the oceans.”

“That will be a nice change of pace. Let me walk you to the docks,” she replied, accompanying Carlos to his yacht.

“I’m sure you have already taken care of it, but I do know a guy that will look the other way while you load your money. If that’s something you require.”

“I took care of him last night. He will no longer require payoffs.”

“You killed him?”

“Of course not. He sits in a useful position.”

“Well, it’s been a pleasure,” said BigDog, extending her hand to Carlos, “and very fruitful.”

“The pleasure is mine,” he replied, his hands remaining at his sides. “I will be in touch.”

 

~

 

“Have you located and made contact with a broker,” asked Víctor, the driver pulling the limo into the joint parking garage of their three casinos.

“Made contact,” asked Seve. “I have spent the last week and a half phoning firms, putting word on the street.”

“I take that as a no,” replied Víctor.

“Take it how you will, padre. There is not one broker in the entire state of Texas competent, capable and unscrupulous enough to handle the quantity we possess.”

“Your frustrations sound rehearsed. If you require my assistance, just ask. No need for theatrics.”

“These men do not seem to understand discretion, craftiness to be keys to the operation. Whenever I mention these, they quiver and disconnect the line.

“With all the corruption in the financial markets, this should not be so difficult,” replied Seve, reviewing the names on his list, every one of them with a line through it.

“I figured as much,” said Víctor, thumbing the code to his briefcase, the locks popping open. “Run this individual. I hear he is quite the freelancer.”

Taking the file from Víctor, Seve signaled the driver to turn on the overhead lights. “Jack Haiden,” said Seve, “of Austin Financial—”

“He is a heavy hitter,” interrupted Víctor, “motivated, knowledgeable, experienced.

“Our need will seem child’s play to him. I do not want you making direct contact, though.

“From this point forward, Alejandro will handle correspondence. Carlos will take care of the rest.”

“And the casinos,” asked Seve.

“I am here now to alert my general managers. They must prepare for the influx of cash.

“Procedures outside that which they are accustomed will need to be followed. Mistakes will not be excusable, not this time.”

“How long will this process take?”

“Last year, our combined annual revenue from the casinos alone equated to sixteen and one half billion.

“I believe we can have the money assembled for Haiden in roughly three months.”

“Should we not wait until the moment is closer?”

“Convincing someone as reputable as Haiden to accept our proposal may be a protracted process.

“He is a man of many talents, overly cautious, manipulated by no one.”

“But, Carlos said if I was unable to buy him off, I was to find a weakness and apply pressure.”

“Haiden is a man without weakness,” replied Víctor, “a man with more money than he desires.”

“Then what will we do to convince him?”

“We will assure him of our intent and caution. A partnership forged on mutual respect, not fear.”

“I cannot believe you are speaking in this manner,” replied Seve. “This is not how El Diablo operates. We do not care about respect. We force those who resist, demand respect, or it is their death.”

“I am not pleased with this development either, Seve, but if we wish to expand, we must, in caution, adapt.

“The Australian market is the first piece. Once it is in place, it provides the opportunity for worldwide distribution. We cannot afford to lose our footing. We are too close.”

“I understand,” replied Seve, “but I do not like it.”

“It will work out fine,” said Víctor, glancing down at his watch. “Now, I must go. I meet with the financial teams in one hour.”

 

A Few Days Later

 

With one guard placing a bag over his head, securing it around his neck with a zip tie, another secured his hands behind his back with the same.

Led by Carlos, he was guided through several doors, down two hallways before finally reaching the offices.

“I had no idea these warehouses were as extensively developed as this,” said Brush.

“You watch too many movies, Mr. Haiden,” replied Carlos, clipping the ties with a pair of pliers. “Why settle for a rusty, drafty warehouse when you can transform it into a top-of-the-line office building.”

“Mission accomplished. May I,” he asked, removing the bag from his head, pointing to the coffee pot.

“Please do,” Carlos replied, reheating his cup in the microwave. “So,” he continued, “how much did Alejandro share with you?”

“Well,” replied Brush, sipping his coffee, “he kept things acceptably cryptic. A quality I would expect from a businessman such as yourself. A quality I have come to rely on quite heavily.”

“Continue,” Carlos said, taking a seat behind his desk, gesturing for Brush to also sit.

“Essentially that he had a high-value client interested in procuring my services.”

“We employ many safeguards to ensure our protection. I hear you did not appreciate the mobile telephone. These are essential to our operation.

“If you are chosen to do business with El Diablo, these are implementations you will come to expect and appreciate.

“Any pushback and our contract is terminated, up to and including your very existence. Am I clear?”

“Interesting how you lace an apology with a death threat,” replied Brush. “It tells me you mean business. I just hope you’re prepared to pay.”

“Your discretion will be paid for, your money well-earned. This arrangement will be the most significant of your colorful—”

“Let’s get one thing straight,” he interrupted, standing to his feet.

“I work for myself, by my own rules,” he said, leaning over the desk. “Beyond the terms of our arrangement, your authority means nothing to me. I don’t care who you are.”

“If you were wise, you would not test me.”

“If I cowered to every questionable businessman with whom I’ve conducted business, I would be broke and probably dead,” Brush replied, returning to his seat.

“And there will be no discernible trail between myself and your organization,” he said, adjusting his tie. “Am I clear?”

“An untraceable alliance meets my requirements.”

“Good. Now, about my—”

“Before I forget,” interrupted Carlos, reaching for his briefcase, “let us discuss your compensation.”

Slamming it onto the desk, he popped open the locks revealing the contents, “your advance of one million, a starter’s incentive.”

Taking a deep breath, Brush eyed Carlos for a solid forty seconds before breaking his gaze to absorb with a napkin the coffee spilt from the impact of the briefcase onto the desk.

“The price of my service is ten percent, Mr. Ramirez. If you’re planning on toying with me by throwing this pocket change around, it’ll cost you an additional three, as will any other modification to the fundamental agreement.

“I don’t play games, nor do I work with those who engage in such immature behavior,” he replied, tossing the napkin into the garbage can to his right.

“You are delusional if you think I am going to pay you thirteen percent for your services. You are a thief, Mr. Haiden, one that will meet an untimely demise by attempting to steal from El Diablo.”

“It’s clear you are not as serious about doing business with me as I was led to believe,” replied Brush, standing to leave.

“Choose not to pay my fee and I walk. I am not afraid of El Diablo. I have walked away from more threatening individuals.”

“I truly doubt that,” replied Carlos, reclining in his chair. “You are bluffing. Your reputation is one of never turning down cold, hard cash and a solid deal.”

“Try me,” said Brush, buttoning his suit jacket. “I don’t need your money.

“Now, how in the hell do I get out of this place again,” he asked. “That way, right” he said, pointing to the west corridor.

“Sit down, Mr. Haiden,” said a stern Carlos.

“Unless you are willing to pay my fee, I—”

“Sit down,” Carlos yelled a second time.

“What do you want, Mr. Ramirez,” asked Brush, still standing.

“To kill you, but for now this option is off the table. Those who wish to acquire your services will agree to the thirteen percent. It is an unfortunate truth.”

“How convenient,” replied Brush, repositioning his chair before sitting. “Now tell me, what’s the job?”

Carlos leaned forward, resting his arms on the desk. “It is highly complex.”

“Go on.”

“I operate an import-export business. Its very nature, in recent years, has transformed from moderately lucrative to a point beyond the reasonable methods of concealment. The stakes are much higher.”

“I see,” Brush replied, reclining back in his chair, careful to cross his arms in such a way to portray interest without diminishing his façade of aggravation and impatience. “I’m following, do continue.”

“Certain business partners have expressed their interest in ensuring their transactions remain, how do you say, invisible, from your government.”

“That might not be as complex as you think. Your investors are expecting anonymity, which can be accomplished within minutes on my end.

“As for the disappearance of the funds, obviously the more sizable the amount, the more difficult and potentially messy the process becomes. How refined are your current methods?”

“Refined enough. I need a drink,” said Carlos, motioning for his assistant. “Me das una cerveza”.

Una cerveza, por favor,” said Brush.

“You speak?”

Brush nodded. “So, ballpark it for me.”

“Pardon me?”

“Give me a figure.”

“Five billion Australian dollars funneled out of the United States with no delay.”

“That will be quite the Houdini,” replied Brush, using the edge of the desk to pop the cap off the bottle, “but not impossible.”

“You must understand this will act as a secondary filter, the funds first being run through our casinos.

“Once cleared, your orders are to initiate the investment process. Funds will be transferred to you in lump sum amounts, each not to exceed eight thousand dollars.”

“What’s the timeframe?”

“Two years”

“How consistent is your revenue stream?”

“Consistent enough.”

“I need to know.”

“No more questions until you make your decision, Mr. Haiden. I would hate to execute a man of such talent for learning more than he should.”

“Somehow I doubt that,” replied Brush.

“You have me. I would not care.”

“Listen,” Brush continued. “Before I fully commit, I require a considerable amount of information. I refuse to walk blindly into any deal, especially one with a new client.”

“If you are unable to come to a decision with the information provided you, then you are dismissed, our discussions terminated.”

Brush stood. “Thanks for the beer,” he said, swigging the last of it. “Hope I never see you again.”

He turned to leave.

“Wait,” said Carlos.

“What,” asked Brush, keeping his back to Carlos.

“Prove to me you are the best. Present to me your plan of action over a meal. Say, Friday?”

Brush turned. “Friday it is.”

“Very well. A car will pick you up at your condo at precisely seven thirty.”

“I trust we will be dining at your private establishment?”

“You have done your research, Mr. Haiden. May I ask how you came to this conclusion, as I have paid a great deal to keep this truth hidden?”

“No more questions until I make my decision. See you on Friday, Mr. Ramirez.”

 

~

 

“What in the hell were you thinking phoning my restaurant, demanding to meet with me,” asked Carlos. “I am a silent owner, linking me to that place could compromise more than just this operation.”

“We need to talk,” replied Brush.

“Our communication channel is one-way. I contact you, not the other way around, Mr. Haiden.”

“And yet I made contact.”

“What do you need, Jack,” he asked, his irritation unmistakable.

“Frankly, I want more than a contract. I want to be on your payroll—indefinitely.”

“And why would I do that,” laughed Carlos.

“Your success is beyond your ability to handle internally, which is why you contacted me.

“No offense, I appreciate the business, but it sends your risk-levels through the roof by outsourcing this work.

“Not to mention the lack of loyalty. At this point, I am only receiving a check. What motivation do I have to not turn on you, providing circumstances were to go south?”

“Are you threatening me, Mr. Haiden?”

“Of course not. Threats are your business. I’m only asking you to consider placing me on your payroll. If you do, I guarantee your risk will diminish tenfold.”

“Why the sudden change of heart, Mr. Haiden?”

“You asked for my plan of action. It starts here.”

“You are a brave man, Jack.”

“Bring me into the fold, buy my allegiance. You will not regret it. Or—I walk.”

“All because you believe the risks to be too high? What is really going on, Jack? What is your angle?”

“The firm is getting some heat from the feds. I don’t know who, but someone is being careless. I may need to disappear for a while. Something I’m sure you could arrange.”

“If you cross me, the destruction you will suffer at the hands of El Diablo will be beyond anything you could ever imagine.”

“I understand,” he replied, disconnecting the call.

 

~

 

“What have I gotten myself into,” he whispered, as he drove from the restaurant lot, having made the phone call from inside his car.

“He is, without a doubt, one of the most unstable men I’ve ever met. Just being in his presence makes my skin crawl.”

Once he realized one of Carlos’ goons was following him, he maneuvered to lose the tail.

“That’s not good,” he said, before darting across four lanes of traffic, making a quick left as the light turned red.

“Either way, I must maintain the upper hand. Showing Carlos the range of my skillset is sure to keep him unsettled.”

Back at his apartment, he hastened to remove his signal jammer from a hollowed out encyclopedia concealed among many other books atop his shelf.

One of the many bureau safeguards, it was capable of temporarily disabling any bugs El Diablo may have planted as part of their security.

Switching it on, he then used the landline to phone his handler at the Dallas Field Office.

“Two-One-Four-Two-Nine-Two”

“This is Park.”

“We need to meet.”

There was a brief pause.

“Annie’s, one hour.”

“How will I—”

The line was dead.

“I hate when she does that,” he said, clinching the phone in his hands. “I never know anything working with her.”

Breaching the security of a neighboring Wi-Fi signal, he performed a quick search for Annie’s, discovering it to be a dingy nightclub in downtown Dallas.

Could she not have said nightclub, he thought. Would it have been that difficult? Really?

Changing into jeans and a sport coat, he disappeared through the stairwell exit, signaling for a cab from across the street

Switching services twice satisfied his paranoia regarding a possible second tail. Much to the frustration and objection of both drivers, he demanded they travel side roads, zigzagging his way to the club.

 

~

 

“What’ll you have, son,” asked the aged bartender, extinguishing his cigarette in a glass left behind by a previous patron.

“A more upstanding club for one,” replied Brush, his eyes darting from person to person, intent on finding Agent Park as quickly as possible.

“Nobody’s forcing you to be here, you whine-bag,” said the bartender, stumbling toward the counter.

“Now order a drink or get the hell out. These seats are for paying customers only,” he continued, his fit of anger inducing a coughing spell followed by the immediate lighting of another cigarette.

“I’m fairly certain the couple right over there is snorting cocaine off your bar stool.”
“What’s it to you? You a cop?”

“Just give me a soft drink and shut your mouth.”

“Whatever,” mumbled the bartender, pouring himself three shots of scotch, downing them in quick succession.

“Either Park is exceptionally thorough or she’s just getting me back at me for Prague,” he whispered, popping open the warm can of coke, forcing his way through the writhing bodies in an attempt to locate his handler.

Feeling a hand grab his shoulder, he brushed it off, assuming it occurred by mistake. When it happened a second time, he dropped his coke and grasped the assailant’s wrist.

Lifting their arm over his head, he spun around, locking the elbow of the assailant, fist cocked, ready to strike.

“Well, aren’t you just strong and handsome,” said Agent Park, in a strikingly poor southern accent. “My name’s Star,” she continued, glaring at Brush.

“Do I know you, honey” he asked, smirking.

“Let me go and we’ll see,” replied a stern Park.

“My apologies, ma’am,” he said, releasing her.

“Now,” said Agent Park, taking his hand in hers, “why don’t you come upstairs and we’ll jog that memory of yours,” she said, leading him to a bedroom on the second floor.

“You’re ridiculous, you know that? This is insane. A movie theater would have—”

Agent Park ran her finger over his lips. “Let me lock the door,” she whispered.

“Okay, it’s locked, now let’s—”

Cranking up the stereo, she walked him to a chair.

“Sit down, you idiot,” she whispered, “We are being watched and heard.”

“You chose a place with audio and video surveillance? Are you trying to screw this up? Did SAC Decker approve?”

“He’s retiring soon. He doesn’t care anymore. You know that. So, tell me, any new developments,” she asked, untying the scarf from around her neck, wrapping it around his, pulling him in closer.

“Well, I did just meet with Carlos,” he replied, removing the scarf from his neck, throwing it onto the floor. “What in the hell are you doing?”

“We are being watched, you moron,” she replied through clinched teeth. “Play along or they’ll know.”

“Who,” he asked, scooting as far back as he could while Agent Park swung her legs around his, planting herself on his lap, running her fingers through his hair.

“The owners of this club have ties to El Diablo,” she whispered in his ear. “Meeting here doesn’t compromise your cover because your activities are being monitored. Above reproach, remember?”

“I can’t believe I ever made it out of Prague with you as my backup,” replied Brush, picking her up, tossing her onto the bed.

“Wait, did you say you met with Carlos,” she asked.

“That’s right, honey,” he said, glancing up at the camera.

“And how did you manage that? And are you sure it was him? No one’s seen him in years.”

“The details are in my report, but yes I’m positive. He matched the description we have of him at the bureau.”

“So, what do you need from us?”

“The final hurdle before induction is a report,” he said, pretending to kiss her neck. “I present at his private restaurant Friday night. Now, flip me over and loosen my belt.”

“Excuse me,” she replied.

“There’s a flash drive attached to the inside of my belt buckle. It contains my report and what I need from the bureau for the presentation.”

Sliding her right leg over his, she gripped his right shoulder, pushing with her left, seamlessly rolling him onto his back.

Her hands unseen by the camera, it took mere seconds to loosen the flash drive from his buckle.

“Got it,” said Agent Park, tucking the drive into her bra. “Now, you get the hell out of my room,” she screamed, slapping him in the face. “You’re a pig and a creep! Go!”

 

~

 

Confident meeting again the following evening under similar circumstances would raise suspicion, in typical Agent Park fashion, she involved a bouncer in the evening’s encounter.

Catching Brush’s eye near the bar, she lured him to the stairwell. “That’s my signal,” he whispered, pushing his way through the crowd, his sense of urgency gaining the attention of several patrons.

“Hey, little lady,” he shouted.

Park stopped on the stairwell and turned. “Jimmy, this is the creep I was telling you about,” she said, pointing to Brush. “Can you handle this or do I need to?”

Not sure if Jimmy was a fellow agent, Brush played along. Angrily confronting him, he thrust him into the wall, successfully removing the flash drive from his shirt pocket.

Dodging a right hook, he grabbed a bottle from a nearby table, spun around and smashed it into the wall behind the bouncer before running out.

“You okay,” asked Park, “running her hand down Jimmy’s chest, confirming Brush had indeed found the flash drive.

“I’m alright,” he replied, his left hand cupping his ear. “The glass shards got my ear real good. I may need you to take a look.”

“I’m no nurse, go to the ER if you’re hurt,” she said, disappearing into the crowd.

 

~

 

“For your sake, I hope you are as good as your graphs,” said Carlos, gesturing for Brush to sit.

“I just presented Friday. It’s Monday. What am I doing back down here?”

Carlos turned to face the office window, his back to Brush. “Víctor approves. Welcome aboard.”

“Okay, replied Brush. “Glad to hear it. So, what’s next,” he asked, sipping his ice water.

“If you step out of line one time, I will filet you like a fish. I will send your eyes to your mother, your feet to your ex-wife.

“I will keep you alive only to observe your reaction as my blade slices through your abdomen.”

“I see,” he said, noticing guards positioned throughout the office, all armed, weapons visible.

“Have you ever experienced the sensation of your finger nails ripping from your flesh? You fingers chopped off at the joints?”

Brush glanced down at his left hand. “Nope, can’t say that I have. But, my word is my bond. If I renege, I will chop my fingers off myself.”

“Very well,” said Carlos, turning to face him. “Friday, you will be accompanying me to Las Vegas. We feel it necessary to educate you on that leg of the operation.

“Also, we will be holding a welcoming party. Think of it as a meet-and-greet. Many of our major players will be present.”

“I appreciate the gesture, Carlos, but I already have plans for this weekend.”

“Allow me to explain. As a freelancer, you would not be bound to any of this. As a significant new addition to the familia of El Diablo, the rules are different. You now work for me. And I just cleared your schedule.”

 

~

 

“Who is it,” asked Carlos, his office buzzer distracting him from his report.

“It’s me,” replied Brush, “here for the weekly.”

“I was not expecting you until tomorrow, Haiden. We were to meet at the normal. Where are my guards?”

“We are here, sir,” said Thiago.

“Send him up,” replied Carlos, closing the file.

“I am expecting the weekly and three-month roll-up. Do you have these,” he asked, opening his door.

“Wouldn’t it be easier if I came inside?”

“Of course, do enter. Tell me, how much have you invested these past three months?”

“Sixteen percent of the five, so eight hundred million.”

“I am pleased you showed me the error of my calculations regarding the eight thousand,” chuckled Carlos. “That would have taken far too long.”

“Just over twelve thousand years. Anyway,” he said, opening his briefcase, “here are the line charts as you requested. I broke them out weekly and then compiled them for the roll-up.”

“How are operations on your end? Any concerns?”

“Negative, sir. Your portfolio is the best I’ve done in regards to anonymity and profitability. We are a well-oiled machine, sir.”

“I do not say this often, but keep up the good work. This process has been one in which El Diablo has had minimal knowledge and control.

“The complexities of the actions you are performing are beyond the scope—”

“Just so we’re clear,” interrupted Brush, “El Diablo has full knowledge and control. I belong to you. Any concept you wish to better understand, just ask.”

“Of course,” replied Carlos.

 

~

 

Twenty-four hours later, Brush sat outside Carlos’ restaurant, contemplating what he was about to do.

I don’t have a choice, he thought. It’s time to up the ante.

“7:15,” he whispered, his eyes stayed on the clock, “it’s show time.”

Hopping out of his car, he hurried into the restaurant, only to be stopped by Carlos’ two guards.

“You cannot go in there,” said Thiago.

The second guard remained silent.

“Listen guys, it’s me. I come in here every week at this exact same time to meet with Carlos.”

“You met with him yesterday, Haiden,” replied Thiago.

“He is conducting business inside,” interjected Javier, stepping toward Brush, “business to which you are not privy.”

“I don’t care what the hell he’s doing in there. I need to speak with him. So, either you take me to him right this instant, or I’ll plow through the both of you.”

Javier chuckled, “You are a broker. What are you going to do? Sell us to death?”

With Thiago joining Javier in the laughter, Brush remained silent, allowing them to become distracted by one another’s comments.

As soon as they both looked away, Brush executed a precision strike to the guard on his right, a back fist landing just beneath his nose.

Positioning himself to face the other, he stood motionless as Javier closed the distance.

Quickly maneuvering an outside crescent, Brush’s left foot made contact with Javier’s face, knocking him to the floor.

Observing Thiago out of the corner of his eye, he knew he had drawn his weapon. Spinning around, Brush grabbed his arm and twisted, two rounds shattering the front windows.

With his left arm, Brush continued applying pressure to Thiago’s elbow, while keeping his wrist twisted with the other.

Standing to his feet, Javier charged at Brush.

Maintaining full control of Thiago, Brush pivoted on his left, striking Javier with a precision side kick to his mouth, knocking him unconscious.

Increasing the pressure on Thiago’s arm, Brush finished him off with an explosive knee strike to his nose.

Armed with an AK-47, Carlos burst through from the kitchen, four guards in toe.

“What in the hell is going on? Show yourself,” he yelled, his AK-47 aimed, Carlos eager to fire.

Raising his hands, Brush slowly turned around. “Not a good relationship builder,” he said, looking at the unconscious guards sprawled out on the lobby floor.

“Jack, is that you,” asked Carlos, “what are you doing here? Did you do this?”

“We need to talk,” replied Brush, “in private.”

 

~

 

“So, the FBI visited your office,” asked Carlos, meticulously cutting his steak.

“No,” replied Brush, rubbing his eyes. “Fifteen agents showed up and turned the whole firm upside-down.”

“When did this happen,” he asked, signaling a waitress to bring a plate for Brush.

“Early this morning, around nine. Why does it matter?”

“What did they want?”

“They accused me of associating with El Diablo. They claimed they had enough evidence to get a warrant.”

“And did they return with a warrant?”

“Not yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”

“Were you offered a deal?”

“They said if I told them everything I knew, they would provide me with full immunity.”

“And how did you respond?”

“I asked them to put it in writing,” chuckled Brush. “No, I didn’t. I am only joking, Carlos.”

“Your sense of humor is odd,” he replied, reaching for the steak sauce, “but also refreshing.”

“I told them I didn’t know you,” he continued, standing to his feet.

“This is good news, then.”

“My concern is you assured me the feds didn’t have any evidence against you, that you were invisible, that they didn’t even know what you looked like.

“So, naturally, I denied everything, but I can’t have this. I have other clientele. And frankly, I didn’t sign up to be under this kind of scrutiny. You told me you were untouchable.”

“I am. They have nothing, I assure you.”

“Then, how did they know to raid my business? They must have you under surveillance, Carlos.

“You do understand if they find cause to get a warrant and dig into my records, it will trace back to you?”

“I have you under surveillance, Jack. If they were watching either of us, I would know. And what happened to the anonymity we discussed?”

“Of this I am certain: if I go down, I’m sure as hell not going down alone. I don’t care what agreement we had in the past. I’m not covering for anyone.”

“Calm down, Jack. They are merely fishing.”

“Maybe so, but you won’t see me calm until we’re back under the radar.”

“Sit down, have a drink,” said Carlos, motioning for Brush to join him at the table.

“This isn’t a social call,” he replied.

“Very well,” said Carlos, “suit yourself.”

“How should we proceed in light of this development,” asked Brush, reaching for Carlos’ water, downing the entire glass.

“I propose we up the anonymity factor, both in your records and of our partnership,” said a bewildered Carlos. “Erase all traces.”

“That would be the safest option, it would also be the most difficult to implement and maintain. I counter that we move all your files from the Austin Financial server to a private laptop.”

“A judge would never issue a warrant for your private residence, only your office. Why did we not think of this sooner?”

“And in the event they are monitoring my internet activity with sniffers, I will implement an encryption standard developed by an old college friend. The FBI doesn’t employ analysts intelligent enough to crack it.”

“Now you are discussing concepts far above my intelligence. As long as we do not leave any discernible trail, digital or otherwise, I do not care how you do it.”

“Thank you for meeting with me.”

“Have you calmed or should I allow you to injure two more of my men,” smirked Carlos.

“My apologies, Carlos.”

“One day I will ask you how you managed to incapacitate them and you will tell me the truth,” he said, laying his napkin over his plate.

“Definitely a story for another time,” smiled Brush, pointing to Carlos as he turned to leave.

“As I said, one day,” he whispered.

 

~

 

With Brush’s one-year anniversary around the corner and sixty-four percent of El Diablo’s money invested, Carlos organized a celebration in Vegas.

“While I appreciate the two nights of glorious VIP treatment, shouldn’t we get down to business,” asked Brush, joining Carlos at their reserved breakfast table.

“I am just as anxious as you, Jack. But, we must wait. The money has not been properly packaged just yet.”

“Once it has and your men load it, we can leave, correct,” he asked, adjusting his tie.

“Yes, they always operate at a slightly lower caliber after a weekend celebration. Just be patient, we will be on the road in no time. What is your hurry?”

“It’s a three hour flight, and I have dinner plans.”

“Very well. If you wish, you can assist in wheeling the crates of money from the vault to my armored vehicle.”

“Where’s the vault?”

“I will show you,” he replied, dismissing the server. “Come, follow me,” he continued.

 

~

 

Upon escorting Brush to the joint vault, Carlos departed for a quick word with the general manager.

Meeting up with Brush shortly thereafter, he assisted him as they navigated the back halls, wheeling the final crate to the armored truck.

“I think we may have trouble,” whispered Brush, three government-issued SUV’s barreling toward the casino entrance.

Reaching for his weapon, Carlos notified his men via a push-to-talk. “Feds are here, proceed with caution.”

Pulling the slide back on his Glock 45, he placed it back in its holster.

Sliding open a false wall on the truck, he tossed Brush a shotgun, taking for himself an AK-47.

“It is show-time,” he said, stepping out into the street as agents and SWAT rushed the entrance.

“What is the meaning of this,” yelled Carlos.

“My name is Agent Lord of the FBI. I’m going to have to ask you to lower your weapon,” declared the agent, advancing toward Carlos, his weapon drawn.

Carlos lowered his AK-47, pivoting one hundred eighty degrees to face Agent Lord.

“You should never sneak up behind someone with a loaded weapon. You could scare them into firing.”

“Sounds like a poorly conceived plea deal to me.”

“Yes, well, when it comes to money and the thoughts of being robbed, one never call tell.”

“I shouldn’t have to say it twice,” said Lord, signaling for Carlos to relinquish his firearm.

Carlos rested the AK-47 atop a loaded crate. “What do you want? Why are you here? My operations are legitimate.”

Lord holstered his weapon. “I’m on the hunt for one of your known associates, a fugitive by the name of Jack Haiden.”

“I can assure—”

“Save it,” interrupted Lord, raising his hand to Carlos. “It’s no secret you employ men much more intelligent than yourself to handle your finances. Give us Haiden, or we tear this place apart.”

“I suppose you can provide me with a search warrant?”

“The judge is signing it as we speak. However, if you truly run a legitimate and reputable establishment, you should have no problem allowing us access.”

“Listen carefully. This is what I will allow: Gather your men; get the hell off my property before I charge you with trespassing.”

Lord signaled for his men to retreat with one hand, reaching into his pocket for his cell with the other.

“Don’t go anywhere, Carlos. The warrant will be in my hands within minutes.”

“As long as it is a legal search, I have no problems.”

 

~

 

“Back again so soon, Agent Lord? If this keeps up, I may have to file a complaint with your superior.”

“Here,” said Lord, holding up a folded piece of paper, “is a warrant for the arrest of Jack Haiden.”

“Excuse me,” replied Carlos, “Jack who?”

“Don’t play games with me, Mr. Ramirez. He’s a known associate of yours and a wanted fugitive. Our intel says he’s here.”

“Well,” said Carlos, “your intel is incorrect as I do not know to whom you are referring.”

“In my back pocket, however, are search warrants for your casinos. So, for your sake, I hope you’re telling the truth. Wouldn’t want to get locked up for aiding and abetting, now would you?”

“Good luck,” whispered Carlos.

“Damn it, Ramirez,” replied Lord. “Alright, all teams a-go.”

You had better hope we don’t find him,” he continued, his finger in Carlos’ face, “or you’re going down with him.”

“I wish you the best in your endeavors, Agent Laud,” smirked Carlos.

“It’s Lord.”

“Whatever.”

 

~

 

“Well,” said Carlos, glancing down at his watch, “it has been two hours. Any luck apprehending your fugitive?

I would hate to press charges based on your unsubstantiated claim.”

“You’re not going to press charges, Mr. Ramirez. You want to know how I know that?”

“Not really. No, I do not care.”

“Because you can’t afford that kind of publicity.”

“All your agents have given up. All who remain are you and your dim-witted partner. It would serve you to leave now.”

“You looking for me,” asked Brush, climbing out of a hollowed out slot machine.

“Freeze! You’re under arrest,” said Lord. “Slowly turn around, drop to your knees, interlocking your fingers behind your head.”

“Nice and easy,” said Brush, following Lord’s orders, “don’t shoot.”

Even with Brush assuming the position, Lord waited to approach. Nervous about holstering his weapon, he hesitated before advancing toward him.

Securing Brush’s hands with his left, Lord reached for his cuffs with his right. “We finally got you, you bastard,” he whispered.

As Lord removed the cuffs from his belt, Brush dropped his hands and spun around. Kicking his right leg out, he swept Lord to the floor.

Both scrambling for the now loose firearm, Brush shoved Lord into a cardboard sign, gaining just enough ground to secure the weapon.

Lord, furious his sidearm was lost in the scuffle, continued after Brush, tackling him to the ground.

Shrimping out of Lord’s grasp, Brush aimed the .45 at his chest and fired.

Before his partner could react, Brush rolled onto his back and fired behind him, hitting Decker in the stomach.

“Give me the keys to one of the VIP cars,” yelled Brush, dragging the bodies out of window sight.

“What for,” asked Carlos, stunned by the events that just took place.

“I need to get rid of the bodies. Now.”

“Where? We have the means and method to dispose of them right here.”

“We don’t have time to dispose of them here. The gunfire is going to attract more police.”

“Fair point.”

“Now, give me the keys,” said Brush, extending his hand, palm up.

“Very well. Here are the keys to my SUV. It is in the parking garage.”

Throwing the bodies into the back, Brush sped for the desert.

When he was certain he wasn’t being followed, he reached into his front pocket and switched on a signal jammer.

“All clear guys,” he said, dropping the device into the cup-holder.

“That was awesome, man,” said Lord’s younger partner Decker, “right, Lord?”

“It was believable, I’ll say that,” he replied, cradling the back of his head. “I think my head can vouch.”

“Sorry, man, but it had to look legit.”

“No worries. By the sound of it, he bought in.”

“So, where to,” asked Brush, turning onto the interstate.

“I sent the address to your GPS,” replied Lord. “It’s an isolated sector of the Mojave Desert. You understand?”

“Organized crime burial ground, of course.”

“So, listen,” continued Lord, “As you know, SAC Yung is retiring in a few weeks. Well, the director wants you to meet his replacement.”

“Why,” asked Brush.

“How the hell am I supposed to know?”

“He sent you out here with no information? I find that very hard to believe, Lord.”

“Apparently, SAC Rodriguez has experience with the cartels. The assistant director wants him to debrief you, give you a few pointers.”

“Give me pointers? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“You’re orders are to come in when they call.”

“There is no way I can risk going to headquarters. Not now. What are they thinking? Pulling me out this far in is an insane risk.”

“Lord told him the same thing, man,” interjected Decker, “but the dude insisted. You never know, though, he could have some helpful info.”

“This is ridiculous,” said Brush, “a stupid idea.”

“It’s going to be at least three months before Rodriguez transfers in,” said Lord.

“After that, it will probably be another two or three before you’re brought in. Who knows? Maybe you’ll have this all wrapped up by then, right?”

“I don’t like it,” replied Brush. “It feels off.”

 

~

 

In Dallas, Carlos brought together his top five lieutenants for a meeting, briefing them on the Vegas fiasco.

Gathering at the warehouse, he addressed them with candor, knowing it was one of only a few places law enforcement officials were unaware existed.

“Víctor is well aware of recent events,” said Carlos. “He is infuriated to say the least. His anger, however, is not of Jack’s actions alone, but that we let events progress to this point.

“We must be more thorough in our day-to-day operations. Another slip up of this magnitude, we will be the ones Víctor buries in the desert.”

“Instead of taking it out on us, have you considered Jack to be the problem,” asked his first lieutenant.

“How do you mean,” asked Carlos, standing at the head of the table, the image of authority.

“Well, he doesn’t respect you for one—or us for that matter. He shot up your restaurant, took out your two best guards, interrupted our business meeting and embarrassed you in front of your men.”

“Not to mention the unwanted attention drawn to the restaurant,” interjected his second lieutenant.

“Listen to me,” replied Carlos, “his actions were a direct result of the FBI raiding his firm that same day.”

“Yes, exactly. It was because the FBI was investigating him. Not El Diablo, him.”

“You are incorrect. They were investigating his connection to us. They offered him full immunity if he would turn over.”

“What,” asked his fifth lieutenant. “Did he?”

“None of us would be here if Jack had rolled over. He is a trustworthy asset. As far as I am concerned, his allegiance was confirmed when he turned down full immunity and kept his mouth shut.”

“That level of loyalty is difficult to establish, especially with a new asset,” said his first lieutenant. “Even more so with one who has no visible weaknesses.”

The others nodded in agreement.

“Just as long as action is taken, a plan implemented to keep things a little more stable on his end,” said his fourth lieutenant.

“I have Jack under control, but I have heard your concerns. I agree. This is why Víctor is bringing in Eduardo,” said Carlos.

“I thought he was head of the Las Vegas field office,” asked his first lieutenant.

“Not anymore,” replied Carlos.

 

Three Days before the Abduction

 

“Hello and thank you for coming in, Agent Brush. My name is—,” said SAC Rodriguez, extending his hand across his desk.

“I know who you are,” interrupted Brush, ignoring his hand, maintaining his seated position.

“I suppose that places me at a slight disadvantage then,” replied Eduardo, regaining his posture. “So then, what do you know, or think you know about your new SAC?”

“Okay,” said Brush, straightening his shirt collar. “Eduardo Rodriguez, fifty-four years old, Mexican-American, been with the bureau for over twenty years—”

“Twenty-one years and three months to be exact,” interrupted Eduardo.

“Took your oath in Albuquerque, seven years later moved to Vegas, becoming the second youngest SAC in the history of the FBI.”

“I’m not impressed yet,” replied a smiling Eduardo.

“Neither am I,” smirked Brush. “But, I’m also not finished.”

“Please continue.”

“Even though you took your oath in Albuquerque, you were born and raised in Brownsville, a border town and sister city of Matamoros.

“Aligning yourself with the gangs from a young age, it’s widely speculated among various agents in various organizations that you have had, or still hold ties to at least one of the Big Three.”

“Those accusations are wildly out of line, Agent Brush. They are completely inappropriate, and have never been substantiated. Rumors initiated by those intimidated by my early prestige.”

“You’re probably right. I do, however, know for a fact that both your parents and at least one brother have ties that run deep.”

“What are you trying to say, Agent Brush?”

“How you managed to escape such a fate and turn that into something as great as a career in the FBI is nothing short of astounding.”

“I am impressed with your knowledge of my past.”

“I sure hope you didn’t order me to break my eighteen month cover just to come to headquarters to discuss your life’s history. Why don’t you tell me the real reason I’m here?”

“You have been a busy man, Agent Brush. And after much consideration, I have decided this operation is too risky. I’m pulling you out.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Under what justification?”

“You have successfully funneled all of their funds. Mission accomplished, Agent Brush. You are finished. No sense in risking your life any further.”

“Are you hearing yourself? The mission isn’t accomplished until we’ve taken these guys down. This little bit of money doesn’t mean anything to them.

“It isn’t even ten percent of their annual income. No, I’m not stopping until I cut the head off this beast once and for all.”

“Listen, Agent Brush. I understand you’ve worked hard this last year and a half, going above and beyond, but continuing with this operation will put you and your family in more danger than it’s worth.”

“I get that no agent has made it this long undercover in a cartel, but with Carlos’ trust finally earned, the time to give up is not now. In two weeks, he is taking me to meet Víctor at their headquarters in Matamoros.”

“How does that help us?”

“Carlos has mentioned a prostitution ring in Dallas. I’m not sure who runs it, but I may be able to persuade Víctor to give me a tour.

“Once we get across the border, you can take him down. We already have the arrest warrant.”

“Do you really think he is that ignorant? That he would just cross the border because you asked nicely? How do you think they’ve eluded us for as long as they have?”

“As far as they’re concerned, I’m in as deep as they are. There is no reason they would suspect me, not at this point.”

“You came prepared to argue with me didn’t you?”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s clear, based on what you’ve just shared with me, I can’t pull you out. You’re in far too deep.”

That’s odd, thought Brush, his focus centered on the window behind Eduardo.

If he really wanted me out, he could’ve just pulled rank. Why the sudden change of heart?

“I’m not happy about it,” continued Eduardo, “but it really is our best option at this juncture. Since you are so close, I suppose I can offer you a little more time.”

“I appreciate it, sir,” said Brush, standing to leave.

“You know, I could pull rank and force you out?”

“Not without jumping through a few hoops.”

“You know your handbook.”

“And I’m married to the director’s daughter.”

“Wrap this operation up quickly, Agent Brush. Waste no time because I will pull you out. Do you understand?”

“Understood, sir,” he replied, closing the locked door behind him.

With his office shades drawn, Eduardo removed his cell from his pocket, pressing speed-dial one.

“This is Eduardo,” he whispered. “Tell Carlos I tried, but he will not back down.”

After a strong response from the man on the other end on the line, it was clear plans were changing with or without his input.

“No, I will not stand by and allow—.”

Eduardo paused as the voice on the other end rose.

“I do not care,” he interrupted. “I said no. Tell Carlos I have a plan. Yes, I will wait for his call.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5

 

Stacked Odds

 

The sharp, unexpected ringing of the landline permeated the silent darkness of her bedroom. Disrupted from a deep slumber, she woke groggy and disoriented.

Frantic, she reached for the handset, knocking her alarm clock from her nightstand in the process.

“Hello,” she answered, first clearing her throat.

“Hello. Is this Mrs. Brush,” asked the voice on the other end, the voice of an aged man, the tone indicative of one holding a position of authority.

“Yes it is. With whom am I speaking?”

“Kelly?”

“Yes, who is this? It is two o’clock in the morning,” she replied, her voice rising.

“This is Sheriff Aaron Rogers. I’m real sorry to bother you at this hour, ma’am. It’s just that we got a call from a passerby about an hour ago.

“Uh, there was an abandoned car left in the middle of county road seventeen,” he replied in a heavy southern accent.

Kelly sat up. “Okay,” she said, her tone calm, doing her best to not let her mind wander to the worst case scenarios now flooding her mind.

“Well, see, the thing is, ma’am, the car was running and no one was inside. So naturally, we ran the plates and found the owner. It—”

“That’s good,” she interrupted. “So, why exactly are you calling me? Is everything okay?”

“Well, see now that’s the thing. We went and visited Mrs. Matthews who said the car is her daughter Amy’s.

“Apparently, she was driving your daughter Amber home when they both just up and vanished. And, I’m hoping they’re with you.”

“I’m sorry, sheriff, but what exactly do you mean by vanished? Amy was supposed to bring Amber home last night around eleven, so I figured she just slipped in without me hearing or perhaps decided to stay at Amy’s.”

“Well, can you check, ma’am, to see if they’re with you?”

“Yes, of course,” she replied, climbing out of bed, “hold on one second”.

Carrying the phone with her to Amber’s bedroom, she rested her forehead against the door before gently knocking.

With no response, she quietly twisted the knob, revealing a made bed, no sign of either girl.

A lump began to develop in her throat, her stomach turned ill as she stared into an empty bedroom. “Just a sec,” she whispered into the handset.

Her heart pounded harder, her muscles tensed as each room on the second floor came up empty. Before she had even made it to the stairs, she caught herself in a panicked run, a cold sweat developing on her brow.

“I have searched every room in the house. They’re not here. There’s no sign she ever made it home. Her supper’s still in the microwave and her backpack’s missing.”

“I’m sorry ma’am, but this just doesn’t look good. The car was found in the middle of the road, still running, with both doors open, and—” he paused.

“And, what?”

“There was a—” he paused again, this time the weight of the hesitation noticeable in his voice. “A note ma’am—a handwritten note—and it would appear the kidnapper signed it.”

“Note? Kidnapper? A ransom note? Oh God,” her voice trailed to a whisper.

“Ma’am, I—”

“Are you telling me my daughter was kidnapped? I’m coming down there. I’ll be right there.”

“Ma’am, listen. You don’t need to come down here. We are doing everything we can to piece this together to get your daughter back.

“I’ve called in the local PD and the Texas Rangers just arrived. We will find your daughter and keep you posted. You just stay by your phone, miss.”

“Not a chance. Tell me what the note says and where it was found in the car,” she asked, as she gathered her things.

“Ma’am, I can’t share that over the phone, it’s evidence.”

“You’re right, it is evidence—of my daughter’s abduction,” she yelled. “Either you tell me what it says right now, or so help me God, I will get in my car and come down there.” Do you understand me?”

“Ma’am, I understand you’re upset, but you can’t come down here. I don’t want to have to place you in custody for hindering an investigation, but I will if you don’t remain calm. Everything’s going to be just fine, I promise.”

“Sheriff Rogers, you listen to me and you listen well. One little phone call to my father, Director Gorman and your whole department will be under immediate review. Are we clear?”

“Yes, ma’am, I know who you are,” sighed the sheriff. “In that case, you better come on down here, then. I don’t want no fight with the FBI.”

 

~

 

As Kelly drove up on the scene, she was directed away from the abduction point, as blockades extended one half mile east, the direction from which the girls had traveled. The stretch of road, surrounding fields, and woods were swarming with law enforcement.

The county sheriff, his three deputies, ten local policemen, six Texas Rangers and two crime scene investigators were scattered throughout the entire area.

Together, they were analyzing footprints, attempting to recreate the abductions, searching for physical evidence, testing for fingerprints and DNA of any kind, while taking statements from the parents along with the couple who had phoned it in.

Parking her car near the others, she wandered toward a group of officers, dazed, confused. Realizing she was in no shape to be at the crime scene, she froze.

“You okay, miss,” asked a nearby officer.

“It’s so bright,” she replied, squinting as she blocked the light with her hand.

“Yes, ma’am,” interjected the sheriff.

“We good here,” asked the officer, turning to leave.

“Thanks, Mark,” replied the sheriff. “You can go.”

“Regarding the lights, ma’am,” continued the sheriff, “we combat the ever present darkness with these massive floodlight, makes it almost bright as day.”

“I smell coffee.”

“Freshly brewed,” replied the sheriff, pointing to a table not far from where they were standing.

She noticed a quiet, intense chatter in the air as she drifted over to the coffee stand. Looking to her left, she saw what appeared to be two Texas Rangers tracking the girls’ footprints.

Glancing in the other direction, she observed as the crime scene investigators argued with the tow-truck driver about how to securely transport Amy’s car to the police evidence garage.

The steam from the near boiling coffee rolled out of the foam cup, fogging up her glasses as she poured herself a cup. Overlooking the cream and sugar, she walked on.

Setting her cup on the hood of the nearest police car, she pulled her gloves from her coat pocket.

“That’s better,” she whispered, securing the ends of her gloves inside her jacket sleeves.

Reaching for her coffee, her eyes connected with a metallic glimmer in the street. Not realizing she had knocked her cup over, spilling her coffee all over the hood of the police car, she kept focused on the piece of metal until she was stopped by an officer.

“Ma’am, you can’t pass the tape. This is a crime scene. You could contaminate evidence.”

“I understand,” she replied, her eyes still fixed on the item. “I think that is my daughter’s ring,” she continued, pointing to the item in the street. “We have matching rings,” she said, removing her glove to show the officer. “See?”

“Not a problem, ma’am. I will alert the crime scene folks and they will process it ASAP. That’s a good eye.”

“Thanks,” she replied, clinching her ungloved hand, gazing at the ring on her finger.

“Thirty-seven degrees,” said the sheriff, “that’s a cool morning here in Dallas. Better get that glove back on before you freeze.”

“The wind doesn’t help,” she said, wiping the fresh tears from her face. “The storms make the air feel heavy, damp. Amber hates rain storms.”

“I saw you spill your coffee.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. I will clean it up.”

“No, don’t you worry one minute about that. Here,” he said, “I brought you another.”

“Thank you.”

“No need to thank me, ma’am,” chuckled the sheriff, “at least not until you’ve tasted it.”

“It tastes just fine,” she replied, offering up a faint smile. “So, what have you found out?”

“Well, quite a lot actually. The rangers just discovered two sets of footprints on either side of the road coming from the car. It seems the girls managed to get loose from their attackers long enough to run before the kidnappers caught up and—”

“Oh God,” she whispered.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am; I really shouldn’t be telling you this,” he said, his eyes diverting to his feet.

Her eyes welled with tears. “No, please tell me. I want to know. I have to know,” she said, in between the heavy sobs.

“Are you sure you want to be so close to this, ma’am?”

Kelly nodded.

“Okay then. Follow me.”

“Way out in the fields over here,” he continued, escorting her to the other side of the tape, pointing to the field where Texas Ranger Randall Biggs and his partner were tracking the various sets of prints in the wet grass.

“There’s what appears to be evidence of a brief struggle, where the two sets of prints turn into one, like each girl was either carried or subdued somehow.

“Then, the prints turn, leading toward the intersection, where we lose them again when they hit the road. I would guess they had a van or some other large vehicle and that’s how they stopped the girls just before the intersection.”

“With all due respect, sheriff, that doesn’t make sense. If they blocked the girls at the intersection, why is the car so far back,” Kelly asked, the investigative intrigue inside her beginning to emerge.

“We can’t be sure just yet, but it seems they backed up, probably trying to get away from the kidnappers, but then stopped for some reason. We just haven’t figured it out yet, not enough evidence, but we will, don’t you worry.”

The sheriff offered a sympathetic smile before taking a sip of coffee from his mug. “That is some nasty stuff, whew boy.”

Kelly remained silent.

“You forgot to add the fixins’, you dummy,” he whispered to himself.

Kelly nodded, her mind still fixated on the inconsistencies of the crime scene.

“After tastin’ that black, I don’t think what I’m drinking can be classified as coffee,” he said, emptying the contents of his mug onto the ground, heading for the coffee stand.

“Hey, sheriff,” she asked, running to catch him.

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, turning toward her.

“Do you think maybe there was a third guy standing in the road, you know, preventing the girls from backing?”

“You know, you could very well be onto something,” he replied, opening a file he had clinched between his arm and side, “because if you look here,” he said pointing to a spot on a picture, “neither set of footprints shows them going back to the car.

“Someone had to stick that note in there and these two guys didn’t detour to the car, they went straight to the intersection. So, as you can see, that is a possibility.”

“Unless they walked back to the car using the road, not the grass, then there wouldn’t be any prints, right?”

“You’re very right, but it seems that would take too much time. This attack was timed, organized. Having a third makes the most sense, which is why we have the best footprint analysts on scene. These dagum rangers were born with eyes for this stuff. ”

“May I see the note?”

“This is where I’m supposed to say no, but being your ties run deep in the FBI, I don’t reckon I have much of a choice.”

Kelly smiled. “Smart man.”

“Now, it’s already been bagged as evidence, so read it, but don’t take it out of the bag or nothing, understand?”

She nodded.

“I’ll give you some time. Be over here if you need me,” he said, continuing toward the coffee stand.

“Wait,” she said, her eyes already fixed on the note, analyzing it line by line, word for word.

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, itching to get himself a fresh cup of coffee.

“Sheriff, who is Jack Haiden?”

“I’d ask you the same thing, but it wouldn’t make no sense for them to sign it. That’s gotta be a misdirect.”

Unless it was written for a particular reason and someone involved is supposed to know what it means, she thought to herself.

“And, why is this note crumpled?”

“Another weirdo aspect of this one. Makes no sense. It was found in a ball on the driver’s floorboard.”

“Huh, yeah, must be,” she replied, handing the note back to him, “I’m uh—I’m going to go make a call.”

Nearing her car, she was stopped by a hand on her shoulder. “Ma’am,” said the sheriff, “we really would like to keep this under wraps for a while, so I’m gonna have to ask you to not share this with anyone just yet.”

“Oh ok, sure, I understand. I’m just going to go call my mother and let her know. She and my father will be devastated.”

“Ok, well just keep it to your immediate family.”

“Of course,” she smiled.

Back at her car, she ensured no one was around before quietly popping up the back seat, exposing the car battery.

Pulling out a small, black metal box hidden in the foam underneath the seat, she carefully typed in the five digit code, triggering the side panel to flip open.

Tilting the box, the voice pager slid into her hand, where she set the frequency, recording an encrypted message for the only person who could decrypt it.

“It’s me,” she whispered. “Something’s happened, and we need to talk. Threat level: Lima Delta.”

Terminating the connection, she waited in her car for a response.

 

~

 

Who is calling in the middle of the night, he thought, as he reached for his cell. You have got to be kidding me.

Seeing that his phone battery had died, he quickly realized it was his pager that had woken him, which meant it could only be one person.

Wiping his eyes, he sat up. “She hasn’t made contact in over three months. So, why now, and at three thirty in the morning,” he asked himself, unfastening the Velcro from his thigh, stopping the pager.

Over the years, Brush developed several key protocols Kelly could follow to make contact while he was under. Understanding it to be strictly forbidden, he mandated rare use, if at all.

Shuffling over to the bookcase, he turned on the corner pole lamp before kneeling down and grabbing a dusty dictionary from the far right bottom corner.

Upon opening the cover, he typed in the seven digit combination, scanned his fingerprint and used the key hidden underneath to unlock it.

Connecting the pager to his AN/CYZ-10 via USB, he transferred the message before playing it back. Before even hearing the second word of the code, he secured the electronics, dressed, and headed out.

Once to the edge of town, he parked in the back lot of a local market, walking the mile and a half to an abandoned cabin in the woods. Turning on a signal jammer for extra precaution, he took out his phone and dialed Kelly.

“Hello,” answered a surprised Kelly.

“It’s me,” replied Brush, locking the cabin door behind him, taking a seat at the table, in the dark.

“It’s so good to hear your voice. I’m barely keeping it together here, Andy,” said a broken Kelly.

“I miss you, Kel. Is everything ok?”

“Amber’s been kidnapped,” she said, her voice shaky.

His abdominal muscles tensed. His eyelids heavy, he gave in, allowing them to fall, an overwhelming sense of guilt enveloping him. “What happened,” he whispered.

“I received the call a few hours ago. The sheriff says she was taken by force. The evidence supports it, as does the note the kidnappers left.”

She paused; he could hear her sobbing in the background. “You have to get her back. She’s my little girl.”

“Tell me exactly what happened”.

“She spent last night studying at Amy’s house. You remember Amy, right?”

“Yes, I’ve met her a few times, sweet kid.”

“Anyway, they were prepping for the ACT, scheduled to sit this morning. The crime scene suggests that on their way home, someone pulled into the middle of the road and grabbed them.”

“Why was Amy driving her home? Why wasn’t Amber driving her own car?”

“It broke down at school. The headlight switch on all day drained the battery.”

“I assume by now you’ve spoken with the police. Do they have any leads? How long ago did this happen,” he asked, the fear and helplessness slowly giving way to rage.

“Their efforts are tireless. The police and rangers have been working non-stop since the call came in.”

“Have you told your parents?”

“No”

“Good. Don’t. Not until we figure this out.”

“What do you mean? Dad can help.”

“A man of his authority will only make a bigger mess. Give me some time to follow a few leads.”

“Time? You’re undercover. How can you spend any time—” she paused, and then it hit her. “Don’t tell me you think this has something to do with you.”

“I can’t say for sure, but just let me look into it.”

“What do I tell my parents?”

“Tell them nothing. Your father will find out soon enough, and when he does, just tell him you were too devastated to talk about it. I know how insincere that sounds, but—”

“It really is the truth. I am devastated. After seeing that note, I don’t know what to think. I’m just confused.”

“Read it to me, will you?”

“The sheriff only let me peak at it for a split second, and only that long because—”

“You dropped you father’s name?”

“No matter how hard I try, Andy, I can’t get it out of my head, like the words are burned into my memory.”

“I’m sorry I can’t be there with you, Kel.”

“I think it may be a clue of some kind,” she replied, completely disregarding his previous comment, “but tell me what you think.

“The note read: I have your daughter and her friend. You know what I want. Get it to me or I kill them both. You have two weeks. And then they signed it, Jack Haiden.”

“Jack Haiden? It can’t be,” he whispered. “How?”

“What can’t be? How what?”

“They know,” he said, his grip on the phone tightening.

“They know? Who knows? What are you talking about? Tell me what’s going on, Andy.”

“Kelly, you need to sit down.”

“I am sitting,” she paused, “in the car at the crime scene. Why? What is it?”

“You were right.”

“Right about what?”

“Oh God, what have I done?”

“Andrew, what is going on?”

There was silence on the line. Just as she thought they had lost connection, he spoke.

“Jack Haiden is the identity I assumed for this operation,” he replied, his attempts to remain calm and objective failing.

“Carlos, the man I’m after, is the only one with enough authority inside El Diablo to pull this off.”

“Dear God. But, why?”

“We one-upped him. I successfully infiltrated their ranks, allowing the bureau to funnel his elicit earnings, while gathering enough evidence to shut down the entire operation. We’re talking multi-billion.”

El Diablo?”

El Diablo.”

“You’ve studied these monsters, hunted them for years. What do we do?”

“I need you to listen to me very carefully. If I don’t make contact with them, turn myself over, they will kill Amber and Amy without hesitation.”

“That is insane, Andy. You can’t turn yourself over to them. Why? So, they can kill you, too?”

“They won’t kill me. I have their money. I can negotiate the release of the girls in exchange for it.”

“And, what happens to you the moment they get their money back?”

“That’s not important.”

“These monsters have been after your family for years. First, your mother. Then, you. Now, Amber. That’s three generations. You need to end this. And, that’s not by dying in some half-ass exchange.”

“What are you proposing?”

“Get my father involved. He can spearhead this rescue using the full force of the bureau. They won’t stand a chance against the FBI.”

“A failed mission before it even begins.”

“Damn it, Andy. How will sending a hundred agents into this cartel’s headquarters not help? Tell me.”

“Fine. Let’s say the FBI was able to breach El Diablo’s perimeter, which by the way has never happened. The second Carlos feels the noose tightening, he will take as many down with him as he can, starting with the girls. Do you understand?”

“What are you saying? The FBI is powerless,” she asked, her voice cracking. “We are powerless?”

“Not powerless, Kel. Just at a disadvantage.”

“What are we going to do, Andy? She’s our baby. And, Amy is caught in the middle. This is too much.”

“I’m working on something, but you can’t tell your father just yet. Give me a little time. That’s all I ask.”

“They don’t have time, Andy. After twenty-four hours, the chances of finding kidnap victims alive—”

“This isn’t your typical kidnapping. Carlos wants his money, and will not touch the girls until he has it. They are his only leverage. He won’t risk losing them.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“Listen to me. I will get them back, both of them. I promise you that. I just need a little time.”

“I don’t understand. Without my father, there is no way you can initiate a rescue. He will find out as soon as the FBI is made aware of the situation. That’s protocol.”

“The FBI is not going to be made aware of the situation, because I’m going in alone.”

“What are you saying?”

“The bureau can’t help us anymore. They would never release those funds, nor would they send men in blindly.”

“They would if dad ordered them to.”

“The information would never make it to him. El Diablo has made sure of that.”

“Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”

“My cover is blown. It’s been rock solid for a year and a half. You tell me what happened?”

“Any ideas on whom?”

“I have my suspicions. But, for now, I don’t know who to trust, so I will trust no one.”

“I can’t believe we are talking this way.”

“I will go in as a one man rescue team. I know most of their operation. So, I will sneak in and take as few men down as possible to bring the girls home.”

“I still think it’s suicidal and arrogant of you to think you possess the abilities necessary to take down an entire cartel.”

“I never said that. I only want to make this right without playing into their hand. The bureau is compromised. I am certain of it.”

“Do you truly believe you can do this?”

“Since I’ve been under, I’ve witnessed these men carry out unspeakable evil to other human beings, most of the time for no justifiable reason. They only understand one concept: violence. There are no rules, there are no laws, just violence.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I have to be able to do this.”

“May I offer a word to the wise?”

He remained silent.

“Look, I get it. But, if you do this, there is no going back. Once you turn your back on the FBI, commit to an unsanctioned operation, not even my father can protect you from the consequences.”

“It’s time to end this.”

“Andy, I—”

“Meet me at the cabin in two hours. Don’t be late. To pull this off, I’m going to need your help.”

 

~

 

Ninety minutes later, Kelly crossed the perimeter on which the cabin resided. Traipsing through the forest with a tiny flashlight, she nearly fell two times before finally spotting the cabin. Brush stood waiting outside.

She stopped in her tracks when the beam of light landed on him. She guided it up to his face.

“Do you mind,” he asked, sidestepping the light.

“Sorry,” she replied, lowering the flashlight, “just wanted to be sure.”

“Come here,” he said, holding out his arms.

Kelly wept as they embraced. Standing in the freezing darkness, they both stood silent, cradled in one another’s arms. “It’s freezing out here,” he whispered, breaking the silence. “Let’s get inside where it’s warm.”

“Tissues are on the coffee table.”

“I think I’m cried out for the moment,” she replied, offering up a faint smile, “but thanks.”

“Have a seat. The coffee just finished, and the stew’s not far behind.”

“What is this place? You never have told me.”

“This is a bureau safe house for those undercover, a place to meet with other agents.”

“Do you use it often?”

“No, don’t have that luxury. Most of the time, the meets have to go down too fast to arrange to meet here.”

“It’s nice,” she replied, observing the various plaques on the living room walls. “Is it safe?”

“Very.”

“Doesn’t look it.”

“Well, hiding in plain sight is the idea,” he replied, stirring the pot of stew on the stove.

“How is it reinforced?”

“I don’t have the specs memorized, but I know the windows are bulletproof.”

“Nice.”

“And, there are solid steel guards that descend from the ceiling to cover the windows in the event they are blown out. Also, the walls are reinforced concrete with solid steel paneling.

“Good lord.”

“The built-in communication system offers fully encrypted communications. Wireless cameras capture video on all sides of the perimeter, and the control panel under the coffee table is tied to a few basic weapons systems placed throughout the property.”

“So, this place is a fallout shelter.”

“Well, what you see up here wouldn’t protect us from nuclear radiation. But, I hear what’s beneath us would.”

“This all seems a tad excessive.”

“Most definitely. But, it wasn’t the bureau.”

“Huh?”

“This was some hush-hush joint venture between the FBI and the CIA. No one really knows what they use it for.”

“Whose ever it is, it must have cost a fortune.”

“I agree,” he replied, pouring them each a bowl of stew and an accompanying glass of wine.

“Boxed wine from a fallout shelter, very romantic,” she said, reaching for her spoon.

Oui, Oui, madame.”

Kelly laughed.

“I am sorry this happened, Kel,” he continued. “It’s all my fault.”

“Andy—”

“If I had just backed out sooner, before it all crumbled, none of this would have happened.”

“I would like more than anything to believe that, but you can’t know that for sure.”

“I should’ve never taken the job.”

“If anyone is sorry it’s me, for putting so much pressure on you to turn it down. You’ve never quit a thing in your life.”

“Yeah, and because of that, Amber’s gone. Because I was too stubborn, too prideful to let someone else have the honor of taking Carlos down.”

Tears began streaming down her cheeks as she spoke. “Promise me you’ll get the girls back, and with your life—that you will be so careful.”

“I promise.”

Placing his hand on her stomach, she continued. “I need you to be here for us, for your son.”

“Son? The doctor’s certain?”

Kelly nodded.

Brush cradled her hands in his. “Listen to me. No matter how deep it gets, or how impossible it seems, I need you to trust me. I will walk out of this alive, and with the girls. That I can promise. Carlos will not win, not this time.”

“What can I do to help,” she asked, absorbing her tears with her sleeve.

“There is one thing.”

“Whatever it is, I’ll do it.”

“I need you to let the police conduct their investigation. Let them dig; answer their questions the best you can. Don’t mention anything about me or what I have planned. I need them to be as far off-base as possible.

“They need to believe that you don’t know anything, but stay on them for answers. Not that they’re going to uncover anything. Just play the part, while I work behind the scenes.”

“I hate lying to the police.”

“Me too, but it has to be.”

He stood to leave.

“Andy—”

“If anyone asks, I am still on assignment. Tell them the kidnappers are after Amy, Amber’s just leverage. We must keep your father’s inquiries at bay.”

“He will find out. It’s only a matter of time.”

“We only need to control the when.”

Where are you going?”

“To get our daughter back.”

 

~

 

“I’m sorry, Agent Brush. The bureau is not going to declare war on a major drug cartel without substantial evidence. Unfounded claims of kidnapping are a legal nightmare.”

“Damn it, Eduardo. We have evidence,” yelled Brush, slamming the paper down on his desk. “Have you not read the ransom note?”

“Yeah, of course I read the note. Nothing in it points to anyone in specific, certainly not El Diablo.”

“Nothing points to El Diablo? Have you lost your mind? They signed the note with the name of my undercover alias. For God’s sake, they want me to know it was them.”

“I see how you may draw that conclusion given the present circumstances, but protocol states we run the name first, see what we find. It could be a mere coincidence.”

“A mere coincidence? Are you serious?”

“Yes. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You have got to be kidding me. So, what? You’re ordering me on a while goose chase?”

“I don’t follow.”

“You won’t act until I uncover a solid lead, while my daughter is in the hands of some of the most dangerous men in the world.”

“The assignment is simple. Follow protocol. Uncover a lead. Then, you can pursue it to the full extent of the law. Miguel will be your backup on this one.”

“To hell with this,” he said, reaching for his sidearm. Releasing the magazine, he popped out the round in the chamber before tossing his badge at Eduardo.

Walking to the door, his back to Eduardo, he paused, mumbling under his breath.

“Excuse me,” asked Eduardo.

Brush turned. “I quit.”

“You quit? Really?”

Brush stood silent.

“Very well. Understand this makes you a civilian, with no legal grounds for pursuing your daughter. Any involvement, direct or otherwise, I will have you arrested.”

“Here’s what’s going to happen: I will pursue my daughter’s abductor. I will find him. And, you’re going to stay the hell out of my way, or I’ll plow right over you. Understand?”

“Are you threatening me, Agent Brush?”

“Tell Carlos I’m coming for him.”

“Your obsession with El Diablo is borderline clinical. If you do not seek help, I may be forced to order a mandatory psychological evaluation.”

“Do whatever the hell you want.”

Eduardo stood. Placing his hands on his desk, he leaned forward, locking eyes with Brush. “Carlos will kill your daughter the first chance he gets,” he whispered.

Brush remained silent.

“He will dismember her at every joint and scatter her remains in the desert to be scavenged by vultures and coyotes.”

Reacting instinctively, Brush clinched onto Eduardo’s collar with both hands, dragging him across the desk to within millimeters of his face. “I’m not that stupid,” he said, throwing Eduardo back across the desk into his seat.

“You should have hit me,” replied Eduardo, as he stood fixing his tie, “because now, Carlos is going to kill your entire family. Your wife will be last, after your parents. And, let’s not forget your attorney brother and his infant daughter, Briella.

“You sick son of a bitch.”

“Enjoy your little rescue attempt. It will be very short-lived.” You know, it’s such a shame your fetus of a son will never see the light of day.”

Brush clinched his fists, taking great care to not speak or act in a way he would regret.

Eduardo maintained his position as well.

“I may very well die in my attempt to rescue my daughter and her friend, but one thing I can promise you.”

“What is that?”

“No matter if I live or die, if the girls live or die, I will bring El Diablo to its knees. I will make certain that when it all crumbles, you are the one left holding the bag.”

“That is quite ambitious of you, Andrew.”

“I’m gunning for Carlos. I’m not stopping until he’s dead. If the girls are touched, I’m holding you responsible.”

 

~

 

“Here we are, sir,” said the taxi driver.

“What’s the damage,” asked Brush.

“Thirty-five even.”

Plucking two twenty dollar bills from his wallet, Brush fed them through the slit in the glass partition.

“One second while I get your change.”

“Keep it,” he said, exiting the cab.

“Thank—” said the driver, interrupted by the slamming of the cab door.

As the cabbie veered into the street, he glanced back to see Brush on his knees digging a hole in his front yard. That’s one weird dude, he thought.

Unearthing a spare key and thirty-eight snub, Brush proceeded to enter through his basement. Clearing his house room-by-room, he assured himself he was alone.

After a quick shower, he sat to plot his next move. Drifting to sleep, he woke four hours later, refreshed and with his offensive strategy in place.

Donning all black clothing, Brush set his bullet proof vest aside while he gathered his firearms.

Grabbing a black duffle bag from his closet, he headed into the dining room. Lifting the top off his upright Windsor, he began emptying the contents of the hollowed out piano onto the floor.

Disregarding the glass remnants from the shattered knickknacks he failed to first remove from the piano top, he continued removing his cache of weapons, meticulously cleaning and loading each one.

“I have to hit Carlos where it hurts; show him I’m not afraid. To throw him off his game, he has to believe I am unpredictable, willing to do anything. Otherwise, he wins, every time.”

Brush’s body lined with firearms, he took each weapon out one final time, to ensure all were primed.

Resting in his double-gun shoulder holster were two black and chrome, semi-automatic Glock 22’s with two additional magazines. Equipped with seventeen rounds each, he did not hesitate to secure a final magazine to his belt.

Secured to each ankle were chrome, hammerless, five-round thirty-eight specials. In the small of his back, tucked under his vest, was a black nine millimeter.

Also, concealed under his vest, across his stomach, resided a set of three razor sharp throwing knives.

“A precision strike to any major artery, joint, or eye makes for an excellent attention getter,” he said, securing the knives in their sheaths.

“Regardless of their legality in the great state of Texas, the rules have changed,” he continued. “My oath to the bureau is null and void. Nothing is off limits. Not anymore. Not this time.”

Hoping to partially conceal the weapons and vest, Brush threw on a black button-down dress shirt. Leaving it unbuttoned at the top, he maintained quick access, while leaving nothing in plain sight.

Once to his full-size, dark blue pickup, he popped up the back seat, revealing a black, semi-automatic, double-barreled, high capacity shotgun. Tossing it onto the passenger’s seat, he paused.

“The warehouse where I first met Carlos was heavily guarded. That level of payroll clearly means he has something to hide. The girls must be there,” he said, backing out of his drive.

“I’m sure Eduardo has already informed Carlos of my intent, but it doesn’t matter. My actions today will throw him, forming a crack in his seemingly impenetrable foundation. And, that’s all I need, just a crack.”

“This ends now,” he whispered, speeding toward the industrial park.

 

~

 

Twenty-seven minutes later, Brush pulled into the lot of an abandoned building catty-cornered the warehouse. Positioning himself directly in line with the main entrance, he shifted his truck into drive.

His foot steadying the brake, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Hold on, Amber. Dad’s coming.” With that, he lifted his foot from the brake, slamming the accelerator to the floor.

Barreling toward the warehouse unimpeded, it was not until the guards realized his continued acceleration that they raised their weapons.

“Wrong move, guys,” he said, their impact with his truck thrusting them into the air.

Maintaining his speed, he plowed right through the front doors, making it halfway into the warehouse when his truck suddenly stopped, having crashed into a support beam.

In a slight daze from the deployed airbag, he shifted the truck into park and killed the engine. Lying across the seat, he armed himself with his shotgun and remained still.

As one guard hollered on his radio for backup, Brush engaged the slide, chambering a cartridge. A shell now in place, he waited.

With the guard’s voice gradually becoming louder, Brush knew he was progressing toward the truck. Yelling in Spanish for Brush to surrender, the guard slowed his pace as he neared the driver’s door.

Staying low, Brush kept his eyes glued to the window. The guard cautiously approached, finally brave enough to take a look inside. When their eyes met, Brush did not hesitate. He put his twelve-gauge to the window and fired.

That action was all it took. When the guard dropped, all hell broke loose. Guards began pouring in from all directions, and before Brush knew it, he found himself surrounded. Thirty guards all armed with AK-47’s and M15’s flooded the warehouse.

On order of the lead guard, the others began firing on his truck, transforming it into nothing more than a heap of scrap metal, rendering him completely defenseless within a matter of seconds.

“There went my exit strategy,” he said, as he rolled onto his stomach and climbed into the back seat.

Staying outside the line of fire as best he could, he quickly analyzed his situation, obtaining a general idea of where many of the guards were positioned.

With the majority of them firing from the front, he hastily eliminated the two in the rear with three quick, successive bursts from his Glock 22.

The back now unsecured, and the window already shot out, he waited for the latest round of gunfire to cease before climbing out of the cab and into the bed of the truck.

Knowing he only had seconds to make the transition, he crawled to the tailgate. Reaching for the handle with his left hand, a stray bullet ricocheted off the bed, lodging in his forearm, just below his wrist.

Clinching his teeth, the discomfort breathtaking, he refused to let his mind accept the pain. Keeping focused on his strategy, but unable to use his left hand, he leapt over the tailgate, running for cover behind a stack of metal shipping containers.

Unbeknownst to him, the extra magazine he had secured to his belt broke free when he leapt from the truck. What in God’s name did I get myself into, he thought, as blood oozed from his arm, the pain severe, his emotions rampant.

Not wasting any time, he tore a strip from his shirt, and using his teeth, tied it around his wrist. “I have to stop the bleeding,” he said, double knotting the makeshift bandage. “I can worry about removing the round later.”

Still fiddling with the bandage, he was unaware that six guards had surrounded him, four on his left and two on his right. With stacks of crates in front of him and the warehouse wall behind, he was effectively boxed-in.

Without a shred of apprehension, he darted toward the two on his right, rapidly firing his last four rounds, hoping like fury to drop them both. As one fell to the ground, the other to his knees, Brush paused only to grab ahold of his head and twist.

Feeling the guard’s neck break in his hands, he continued running. Tossing his Glock 22 onto the ground, he pulled his shotgun from his belt, taking cover behind an old soda machine.

“What in the hell am I doing,” he whispered, wiping the sweat from his brow, “there must be twenty guys here.”

Out of sight, he quietly listened in as a few guards agreed to toss a grenade into one of the offices, convinced he was hiding in the back.

“All things considered, I think I got the message of unpredictability across,” he said, firing two shotgun shells in the direction of the other four guards.

“But, that last one was a little close,” he whispered, firing another two shells. “I need a distraction before things get out of hand.”

Making the last shot count, he planted before firing, nailing a guy right above the knee. Empty, he tossed the shotgun onto the ground and pulled out his second Glock.

The gunplay ongoing, Brush studied his surroundings, looking for anything that could provide a sizeable distraction, allowing for his escape. It was then he saw the soda machine compressor.

“It’s a long shot,” he said, firing a few more rounds, “but it’s worth it if it’ll work.”

Kneeling down, he wiped the label with his hand.

“It’s all in the refrigerant,” he whispered, “R600a, isobutane, extremely flammable; the cheap, ignorant bastards.”

Using his belt buckle, he unscrewed the valves, pulling the compressor loose, but leaving it inside the machine.

His current magazine empty, he released it and slid in another before yanking the compressor from the machine and thrusting it into the air above the nearest group of guards. As gunfire erupted, the compressor exploded, killing seven and injuring another three.

Retreating behind the shipping crates, he paused, taking a moment to think. The truck is not drivable, but maybe I can still get some good use out of it, he thought.

With several of the guards disoriented from the attack, and others still searching, intent on eliminating him, he again checked his magazine before taking aim at the truck’s gas tank.

Firing two badly aimed rounds, his hand now tingling, his dexterity impaired, he startlingly dropped to the ground, having taken a round in the vest.

Flat on his back, he scooted to his left and sat up, firing three rounds into the chest of the guard that had been approaching from his right.

Having now drawn unwanted attention to himself and his location, he replanted himself in front of the shipping containers.

Knowing that within seconds he would be surrounded, his daughter’s fate sealed, his family destroyed, he steadied his hand on a crate. “This is it,” he said. “My last shot.”

Firing four consecutive rounds into the truck, all missing the tank, but getting progressively closer, Brush had failed to realize he was once again surrounded.

With no cover, he dove over the crates and crawled underneath the truck to the other side. Shielding himself from stray bullets by opening the doors, he kept his attention on dropping the three that had surrounded him.

Releasing the empty magazine, he reached for the spare on his belt only to find the pouch empty. “Damn it,” he said, tossing the gun aside, reaching for his nine millimeter. “Time to finish this.”

Stretching across the backseat on his stomach, the door pulled-to, Brush proceeded to raise the gun over his head, firing through the window. With the slide jamming after two rounds, he left it in the truck and climbed out.

“That was dumb,” he said, reaching for both thirty-eight’s. One in each hand, he turned and stood, not flinching until all three guys had dropped.

Having taken a clean shot through his right shoulder, a second in his left thigh, and two more in the vest, he was bruised and bleeding, the swell of pain dizzying.

Limping to the other side of the truck, he untwisted the gas cap. Untying the makeshift bandage from around his wrist, he fed it through the line.

He could heard the guards yelling, the sound of foot-traffic drawing near. Even through the smoky air, it seemed they were more than capable of getting a lock on his location.

The thought of being hunted angered him. They were closing in, his window of opportunity was nigh.

Reaching into his pocket for his zippo, he almost fell over, his balance fading.

“God help me,” he whispered, the flint wheel making contact with the striker several times before finally producing a flame.

Igniting the strip of cloth, he staggered over behind the crates, looking on as the flame slowly made its way into the line, his truck exploding.

The intensity of the blast proved much greater than he had expected. Sending him into the air, thrusting him against the wall, he was covered in debris. The resulting shrapnel from the truck embedded into the crates.

Stumbling to his feet, wincing from the pain, he noticed a piece of metal protruding from his lower abdomen. Unable to remove it, knowing he would most likely faint from the pain and subsequent blood loss, he decided to leave well enough alone.

The entire warehouse filled with smoke and fire, it was time for him to make his exit. With everyone in total disarray, he straggled to a nearby corpse.

Taking a business card from his wallet, he placed it inside the guard’s right hand, sliding a throwing knife from its sheath. Walking to the closest window, he paused. Turning, he threw the knife, securing the card to the guard’s hand.

“The bastard likes to leave notes,” he said, climbing on top of a pile of rubble, pulling himself through a window splintered from the explosion, “there’s mine.”

Hobbling to the nearest vehicle, he shattered the driver’s window with his elbow, hotwiring it as quickly as his fingers would move.

As he sped off, he kept his eyes fixed on the rear view mirror, watching in horror as the remaining guards rushed the lot, and began raiding every vehicle, their weapons drawn.

“Thank God,” he whispered, grimacing, his body tense. “I feel like I’m on fire,” he said, the warehouse finally fading out of sight. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all,” he mumbled, slumping over, veering into oncoming traffic.

 

~

 

“Continue backing,” said Juan, directing Manuel to the back docks, “a little more.”

“Just carry the girls the rest of the way,” replied Manuel. “I am to have this van loaded onto a truck for Matamoros within the hour.”

“Fine,” said Juan, lifting Amber over his shoulder. “Enrique, grab the other.”

“How long before this sedative wears off,” asked Enrique, locking the van door behind him.

“You tell me. You administered it,” replied Juan.

“You don’t know?”

“Carlos told me it should last for several hours. Long enough to get the girls situated. Now, get your keys.”

Carrying them to the back of the warehouse, they laid them in separate, custom built holding cells.

With access restricted to a metal hatch in the ceiling, one guard would secure the prisoner to the bars, while the other climbed down a rebar ladder.

“Enrique, hand me those cuffs,” demanded Juan, reaching out his hand.

“Why must we cuff them,” asked Enrique. “They are already locked in these cells,” he scoffed.

“I am going to kill you when this is over. I am only waiting for the order. Now, hand me the cuffs.”

Enrique mumbled under his breath.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing,” he replied, refusing to make eye contact.

“Just what I thought,” replied Juan, jerking the cuffs from Enrique’s hand.

“They are cuffed. Are you pleased?”

“Go,” ordered Juan. “The car must be disassembled and on a ship to China before first light.”

“Are you going to phone him now?”

“No, Enrique, I am going to leave him in the dark. Of course, I am going to phone him. Now, go.”

Juan dialed the number Carlos had provided him earlier that day. Not sure he would answer, he debated about leaving a message.

“Yes,” answered Carlos.

“It is done.”

“Excellent. Were there any complications?”

“The girl was not alone. She was with a friend.”

“And, how did you proceed in light of this?”

“We had no choice but to grab her as well. It was the best option given the circumstances.”

“Very well. Where are they now?”

“They are each in a holding cell, cuffed to the bars.”

“Your team?”

“Manuel is meeting the driver to truck the van to Matamoros. Enrique is driving the car to the chop-shop.”

“I am pleased with you, Juan. Once again, in the light of what could have been game changing complications, you rose to the challenge.”

“With no help from those pajeros.”

“Is it time to reshape Los Tres Diablos?”

“Nothing changes mid-operation. But, when Brush is dead and you have your money, Enrique will join him.”

“About this friend she was with.”

“Yes.”

“Keep her alive for now.”

“I do not understand. Why?”

“To lure Brush to us, Amber must be kept alive. At least long enough to see the return of the money. Amy, however, we use as motivation, to keep him in check.”

“To prevent him from doing something stupid?”

“In the meantime, prepare to change locations. When Brush figures out who has his precious daughter, he will come after her. He only knows of two locations: the airport and where you are now. He will head there first because he has been there before.”

“We will be ready.”

“I will call with further instructions. Do—”

Carlos was interrupted by the echoing shrills coming from the back room.

“Was that screaming,” he asked.

“I have to go,” replied Juan. “The girls are awake.”

 

~

 

“Who are you people? Why did you take us? Please, just let us go,” screamed Amber, yanking on her cell bars.

They were located in a small, rectangular room, much like an enlarged hallway. Barely sizeable enough to fit the six cells, they were lined side-by-side, the front of each not more than five feet from the wall.

The air was thick, the room dark. With the single sound of her own voice echoing through the cells, Amber reached for her knife only to find her pockets empty.

“Dirt-bags,” she whispered, “they must’ve taken it.”

Cuffed to the bars about midway across the cell prevented her from getting a better view of the room as her line of sight was already obstructed.

“Amy,” she whispered. “Are you here, too?”

There was no response, only darkness.

“What was that,” she asked, the faint clanking of chains heightening her anxiety. “I think they’re coming from over there.”

Pulling her cuffs taut, she extended her arms, gaining a better view of the area from which the noise emanated.

The door burst open, the light from the adjoining room blinding, filling the hallway. Seconds later, a shadowy figure appeared.

“You must be Amber,” said the voice, the man proceeding toward her.

About that time, he flipped the light switch. Squinting, she turned her head away from the light.

“Do you know how I know that,” asked Juan.

“Do I know how you know what,” replied Amber.

“That you are the daughter of Agent Brush.”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe because you just kidnapped me?”

“You are much like your father. It is clear his big mouth runs in the family.”

“So, you’re telling me this has something to do with my father? You know, I haven’t even seen him in almost two years, right?”

“You must understand, all of my actions, everything I will be forced to do to you over the coming weeks, lie solely on your father’s shoulders. It is his doing.”

“Forced to do to me? What are you talking about?”

“I work for an organization your father is intent on bringing down. His unchecked obsession resulted in the loss of a very valuable item. He is responsible.”

“My father works for the FBI. He isn’t responsible for anything he does. He gets his orders just like you.”

“Regardless of who ordered it, he carried it out. This makes him responsible.”

“So, because you’re too afraid to go after the FBI, you kidnap the daughter of a foot soldier? That’s aggression misguided, if I’ve ever seen it.”

“Sit down,” he yelled, removing his Sig-Sauer P226R from his shoulder holster, pressing it against her forehead, “and shut-up.”

“I’m thirsty,” she whispered, showing complete disregard for the barrel at her forehead.

“You are crazy,” he replied, returning the gun to his holster. “You must still be groggy from the sedative.”

“Amber, is that you,” whimpered Amy.

“Amy? Is that you? Are you ok?”

“I guess so. Where are we? What’s going on?”

“I’m not sure. I remember jumping out of the car and running for the woods, but then it all goes black.”

Juan opened the door to leave.

“Hey,” yelled Amber.

“What,” replied Juan.

“You’ve had us locked in these cells for hours. We need something to eat and drink and I need to use the bathroom.”

“You act as if any of that matters.”

“If this is about my dad being undercover, then it does matter what happens to me. I’m like leverage, right?”

Juan stood silent.

“So, food, water, bathroom, and how about removing these cuffs? It’s not like we can escape.”

“I will see,” he replied, pulling the door closed behind him.

Amber could hear the locks clicking into place.

I wonder if Carlos would mind if I took a cold one from his office mini-fridge, he thought, securing the keys to his belt.

Back in Carlos’ office, he knelt down grab a beer only to be startled by Manuel who was already enjoying one on the couch.

“Next time, let me know when you arrive.”

“Sorry, amigo. It has been a long night.”

“All the more reason to keep a tight order.”

“Enrique says the girls should not wake for another two hours,” replied Manuel, looking down at his watch.

“Enrique is a comemierda. They are both awake now and have been for nearly one hour.”

“That’s why I couldn’t find you.”

“Put your beer down and help me.”

“Help you with what?”

“The provisions Enrique bought. We have to make the girls a sandwich and then let them take turns using the toilet.”

“Sounds risky,” replied Manuel, swigging the last of his beer.

“We do not have a choice, unless you desire spending the morning cleaning up mierda?”

“No, that would be much worse,” he replied, crushing his empty beer can, tossing it in the trash can.

“Carlos wants them kept alive and fairly well taken care of anyway,” said Juan, following suit.

Removing his black Third-Generation Glock 17 from his side holster, Manuel pulled the slide back, releasing a round into the chamber. “Then, let us do this.”

 

~

 

“Has Agent Brush made contact, yet?”

“Not yet. According to the sheriff’s office, they have only now discovered the abandoned car. It could take hours, if not days.”

“I wish we could speed things along. I do not like this. I want my money.”

“What exactly am I supposed to do if he makes contact? I mean, he isn’t going to remain calm. This I can assure you.”

“When he does make contact, which I am certain he will, you must shut him down, Eduardo. Without the resources of the FBI, he does not stand a chance.”

“I hope you’re right, Carlos.”

“He is one man. Without the FBI, what can he accomplish? I will tell you what: nothing.”

“I do not mean to tell you your business, Carlos, but Brush is a very driven man. I wouldn’t put it past him to try something. That is all I’m saying.”

“I am counting on it. You see, Eduardo, Brush is as predictable as the day is long. Working with him as I have, I learned a great deal about his character.

“Whatever unpredictability he thinks he can swing, it is all carefully calculated ahead of time. He does nothing unpredictably. It is all from a script. Killing him will be like taking candy from a baby.”

“It sounds like you have him all figured out. I just hope you’re right about him.”

“I am. Keep me apprised, yes?”

“I will, yes.”

 

~

 

Thirteen hours after the kidnapping, Carlos arrived at the warehouse, bringing with him reinforcements to oversee the transport.

“What are you doing here,” asked Juan.

“If you had answered my calls, I would not have had to come here.”

“I must have left the phone in the office while Manuel and I attended to the girls. My apologies, sir.”

“Because of this, I am now here to ensure the transport runs smoothly. We cannot afford any hiccups.”

“Do you not trust my ability to handle a small operation such as this,” asked Juan. “The transportation of two little girls,” he scoffed. “This is nothing.”

“I will always trust, El Limpiador,” replied Carlos, “but if Brush mounts a rescue attempt, I not only want the girls somewhere else, I want it to end here.”

“Is this why you brought with you so many guards?”

“There are thirty accompanying me today. They are to make camp for the next twelve hours. This is an order.”

“We will be gone within the hour. If you have not brought them as protection, you must be expecting Brush.”

“He will show up today. I am certain of it. And, we must make certain someone is here to kill him.”

“Manuel, Enrique, bring me the girls. It is time.”

Ordering the girls to be blindfolded, their hands zip tied, Juan pulled the slack a little tighter on the restraints before Manuel and Enrique escorted them to Carlos’ van.

Terrified, unable to control her tears, Amy began pleading for her release. All the while, a semi-collected Amber tried to remain calm.

“It’s going to be alright, Amy. We do what they say and we’ll be fine,” she whispered.

“You don’t know that,” sobbed Amy. “These guys are killers, Amber. They carry guns.”

“What I do know is my dad is coming for us, and he will get us out of this. Plus, my grandpa is high up in the FBI. There is no way these bastards get away with doing this to us.”

“It sounds to me like your dad is why we’re here in the first place. What’d he do to these guys, anyway?”

“I’m sorry,” whispered Amber, “it’s complicated.”

As feelings of desperation and fear overwhelmed her, Amber looked outside herself for inner peace and guidance.

“God help me,” she whispered.

Taking several deep breaths, objectively analyzing her circumstances, she thought back to her years of martial arts training with her dad.

Quite resistant at first, she steadily grew to love the arts, eventually obtaining two degrees, sometimes even outshining her father at state tournaments.

There’s got to be something he said, she thought, some shred of guidance, something to get me through this.

Keep your emotions in check. Never lose control. No matter how terrified you become. Your emotions alter your circumstances for the better or the worse. It’s up to you. You are in control.

Approaching the car, Amber fell ill recalling a time Brush instructed her on kidnappings.

If you are ever taken, remember, the more they move you, the less of a chance I have of finding you.

Much good that is now, she thought, what else? I’ve trained for years, there must be something. Think, Amber.

When forced into a less than desirable situation, opportunities will always arise. Pay close attention to your surroundings. More often than not, the answer is in the little things, the daily routine.

You only need a one-second distraction to turn the tables. Always be ready to act. It could mean the difference between life and death.

“Thank you, dad,” she whispered.

“What did you say,” asked Enrique.

Never show fear. Try to understand your captor’s motives, use them to your advantage. Seeds of doubt will turn them against one another. It will tear them apart.

“Nothing,” replied Amber, “just wondering how much longer we’re going to be walking for. And, why the idiot who parked the car, parked it so far away. Doesn’t make much sense to me, is all.”

“Shut your mouth and keep walking,” replied Enrique, shoving Amber forward.

About to the car, Enrique’s cell phone rang. Using the distraction to her advantage, Amber shot her foot back between his legs and upward, striking him in the groin with her heel.

Startled more than hurt, he lessened his grip just enough for her to twist her arm free of his grasp and sprint away.

Still weeping uncontrollably, unable to see what had transpired, Amy’s reaction was one of confusion more than anything.

“Manuel, keep hold of Amy. Enrique, you idiot,” yelled Juan, as he took off after Amber.

Blindfolded, Amber was not able to get far before Juan caught up. Incapacitating her with one-million volts of electricity discharged from the high voltage stun gun Carlos tossed him, he stood over her as the electricity pulsated throughout her body, neuromuscular incapacitation instant.

Convulsing uncontrollably for nearly five minutes, it was not until she fell limp that Carlos ordered Enrique to attend to her. Infuriated, he dragged her to the van by her legs, shoving her into the back seat next to Amy.

 

~

 

“Who the hell is this guy,” asked the breathless man on the other end of the phone, his discomfort noticeable.

“What are you talking about,” asked Carlos. “Who is this?”

There was silence, followed by deafening screams so intense Carlos had to pull the cell away from his ear.

“Fabián,” asked Carlos, “is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Looks like you were right, your man Brush decided to grace us with his presence after all.”

“Excellent. Were you able to capture him?”

“Capture him? Are you kidding me? Hell no! That crazy-ass plowed his truck right through the front doors of this warehouse and started shooting like nothing I’ve ever seen before in my life.

“He killed all but about five of us. Give or take. I mean we’re not completely sure, still uncovering bodies.”

“Are you telling me thirty armed guards equipped with fully automatic assault rifles were unable to take out one man? I think not.”

“Think whatever the hell you like, but we tried and he did.”

“Tell me you at least injured him?”

“Sir, we unloaded over six thousand rounds on this bastard. I know he had a vest on, but I’m thinking he was hit four times.”

“You think he was hit four times. What good does this do me?”

“Sir—”

“Never mind,” interrupted Carlos. “He has received the message. This is good enough for today. Injured and alone, he will lash out over and over, each attempt more desperate than the last, until he realizes he must comply.”

“I’m not sure you understand, sir,” replied Fabián, running his fingers through his hair. “You told me you wanted a low profile firefight. He blew your warehouse to the sky.”

“Elaborate.”

“He only escaped our grasp because he blew his gas tank as a diversion, taking a good part of the warehouse with it. Not to mention frying my guys.”

“Your guys?”

“Sorry, sir, they’re your men. Anyway, it looks like the boys have packed up what they could and are ready to leave before the cops show up. They’re waiting on me.”

“It is clear I underestimated him. One thing is certain: I cannot have him tearing this operation apart and exposing us to the police.”

“Well, he did a damn fine job trying, sir. So, what’s our next move, then?”

“It is time Agent Brush understands with whom he is dealing. That one does not challenge El Diablo without suffering unimaginable consequences. I am through playing games. I want him dead.”

“Yes, sir. Where should I meet you?”

“The warehouse by the airport. Be there in one hour. Do not be late. You are a man of superb skills. I do not wish to kill you for being ignorant, but make no mistake, I will.”

 

~

 

Locked in a muggy, darkened corridor of El Diablo’s airport warehouse, the girls were shackled to a set of water pipes running along the floor.

Well beyond the point of physical and mental exhaustion, they were unable to fall asleep for fear of what might happen to them.

Sitting on the cold concrete floor, unable to reposition themselves due to the restraints, they were miserable and sore.

Amber’s continued efforts to keep Amy calm through continuous conversation proved fruitful to a degree, seemingly pulling her out of the confused state she had been in since the abduction.

“Hello,” screamed Amber, “we need food.”

“Be quiet, Amber,” said Amy, “make them too mad and they might hurt us.”

“We have to keep our emotions in check, no matter how terrified we are. Otherwise, we lose control. As long as we show them we’re not scared, we can work them against one another. That’s how we buy time for my dad.”

“How do you know all this stuff?”

“My dad has always been a little paranoid when it comes to my safety. As it turns out, he has every right to be,” she said, staring down at her cuffs.

“Yeah, but buying us time doesn’t make us safe. We make them too angry and they will kill us. You have to believe that, Amber. These men are evil.”

“If they were going to hurt us, don’t you think they would have done it, already? This is about my dad. We are bargaining chips to get back whatever the FBI took. They kill us and they don’t get whatever it is they lost.”

“I don’t know,” replied Amy, “I’m scared.”

“I overheard the big guy talking when I was in the bathroom earlier. It sounds like my dad is already coming for us. I think that’s why we were moved so quickly.”

“Really?”

“He sounded super mad, like something went wrong. I’m telling you, my dad will get us out of here,” said Amber, reaching for Amy’s hand, forcing a smile.

Amy reciprocated.

“We’re going to be okay,” she whispered.

Closing her eyes, she rested her head against the wall, tears streaming down her face. Having heard more of the conversation than what she shared with Amy, she whispered a quick prayer before nodding off. “Please, God, let him be okay,” she whispered, “please.”

 

~

 

“Wake up, time to eat,” yelled Juan, dumping the contents of the plastic food trays onto the floor next to them.

Starved, both girls lunged at the burritos, scraping up every last morsel, leaving no part unconsumed.

Flipping on the lights, Juan gripped Amber by the throat with one hand and snapped a picture with the other.

“Say cheese,” he said, doing the same with Amy.

“We need to use the restroom,” said Amber.

“You two look horrible,” said Juan, “these pictures are sure to get your father’s attention.”

“What about the bathroom,” asked Amber.

“Fine,” replied Juan, freeing Amber from the pipes. “You first,” he said, leading her from the corridor.

Not long after Juan returned with Amber, Carlos came walking back with Amy.

“Are you ready,” asked Carlos.

“I am,” replied Juan.

“Very well. Take her from me while I prepare the instruments.”

“What are you doing with her,” asked Amber.

“You are not to be concerned,” replied Carlos.

“Tell me what you’re doing to her,” demanded Amber, tugging on the pipes, her wrists rubbing raw.

“You were my target. Your friend was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you had allowed Enrique to fix your battery, she would not be here right now.”

“Enrique? The weirdo at school? That was you,” she asked, reclining against the wall in bewilderment.

“Indeed it was,” replied Carlos. “You were supposed to drive yourself home, not bum a ride from her.”

“I told you we weren’t safe,” said Amy. “I knew it. Please don’t hurt me,” she cried.

“It is nothing personal. I simply do not have any use for you. It does not make sense for me to keep you alive.”

“You kill her and my dad will—”

“Enlighten me,” interrupted Carlos, “What will he do? Come after me? I think not. He is not that stupid.”

“Family means everything to my dad. He will come. He will kill you. You mark my word. Your time is limited.”

“You are most definitely a Brush,” chuckled Carlos.

“It isn’t funny,” screamed Amber. “Let her go.”

“Perhaps, I should not kill her,” said Carlos, reaching into his pocket, retrieving a box cutter. “Perhaps, just sending a part of her to the FBI will heighten their awareness. And, carry with it a new level of gravity.”

Amber sat silent.

“What do you think, Juan,” asked Carlos. “Should we kill this beautiful girl or just remove an appendage?”

“She is too beautiful to kill, Carlos. There is money to be made. Abelardo would love her. I vote appendage.”

They chuckled.

Carlos slid the blade as far out as it would extend. “You should be smiling,” he said, pushing her hair away from her face. “You win, the girl lives.”

Caressing her cheek, he then ran his hand all the way down to the small of her back. “You are very beautiful,” he said.

“You’re a freak,” said Amber. “Leave her alone.”

“You need to learn to shut your mouth or Juan will shut it for you. Perra estúpido.”

“Why? Too afraid to do it yourself?”

Carlos raised his hand to strike her.

“Do it,” said Amber, bracing herself, “it’ll be one more nail in your coffin once my dad gets ahold of you.”

The blow was quick, the pain more than she had expected. The force alone knocked her head into the wall.

Aiming for his shoes, she spit the blood from her broken lip onto the floor.

“You do not give up, do you,” asked Carlos.

“Never,” replied Amber.

“We will see about that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You will find out soon enough.”

Carlos nodded at Juan to secure Amy.

“Please don’t do this,” she cried, as Juan drove her against the wall with his forearm.

“Stop it, let go of her,” screamed Amber.

Hands and feet restrained, Amy was helpless as Juan gripped her throat and pushed upwards, preventing her from moving her head.

Clinching her right ear between his thumb and forefinger, Carlos pulled it taut, away from her head. Using the retractable utility knife, he started at the top and in one swift move, sliced off her ear.

As Amy screamed in pain, Amber screamed in horror, watching on as blood gushed from the wound.

“Juan, take her to Enrique,” said Carlos. “He will bandage her and administer a sedative.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Juan.

“Manuel, secure the ear. Prepare it for delivery.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Manuel.

“And, would someone shut her up,” yelled Carlos.

“You just cut her ear off,” screamed Amber. “You’re a monster. Both of you, all of you.”

Juan knelt down in front of Amber, clinching her throat the same way he did Amy’s. Restrained to the pipes, Amber remained unable to free her neck from his grasp.

The harder she twisted, the tighter he squeezed. “You are in over your head, little girl,” he said, staring into her eyes until her face became expressionless, her body limp.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6

 

The Last One to Fall

 

Despite every effort at applying constant pressure, blood continued to ooze through his now soaked shirt.

With each passing breath, every inch of his body screamed in agony, his mental acuity further impaired as the pain emanating from his side worsened.

Becoming less concerned with his circumstances, he struggled to keep focused on the road. His vision blurry, he tried wiping his eyes with the back of his hands, only to make matters worse as both were covered in his blood.

Knowing full well a hospital was out of the question, he nonetheless found his eyes darting from sign to sign, waiting, hoping to run upon one.

His previous actions rendered him alone and in trouble. Without allies, his options were clearly limited, something he had brought upon himself. Allowing his anger and sense of desperation to overtake him nearly cost him everything.

Assured his gunshot wounds would raise a red flag with the emergency room staff, warranting immediate police investigation and probable detainment, he determined stopping was not an option. The time it would take to clear his name was time he did not have.

Overwrought, he knew if he was ever going to make it out alive, he would first have to regain control of himself, and then the situation. Maintaining the upper hand, or at least the illusion thereof, would be crucial in taking Carlos down.

Engaging in albeit a modified deep breathing exercise, he managed to find his calm. With his heart rate slightly lower, mind momentarily clear, he began piecing together his next set of moves.

Moderately confident in his ability to stitch his wrist, patch his shoulder, and perhaps even remove the bullet from his leg, it was the large piece of steel protruding from his abdomen that troubled him.

It was the blowback from the warehouse explosion that had shifted his bullet proof vest, allowing the shrapnel to pierce his abdomen at a much higher angle than expected.

The incessant pressure from the vest continued driving the steel deeper into his flesh, gnawing through his side like a dull steak knife.

The pain was intense, far greater than anything he ever felt before. Every time he moved, however slight, a barrage of nearly unbearable pain spread throughout his entire torso.

Driving through Dallas, he came upon several hospitals, one more inviting than the next, the temptation almost too much to bear.

Maybe if I identify myself as undercover FBI, they won’t call the bureau, he thought, his willpower cracking under the near paralyzing despair.

“No,” he said, “It’s not worth the risk. I would be held up for hours. I have to stay under the bureau’s radar, or it’s over and the girls are dead.”

Continuing on in traffic, he avoided the latest hospital entrance by switching into the far lane.

“That double-crossing bastard,” he said. “I will not let him walk away from this. He will pay.”

Entering downtown Dallas as nightfall approached, the evening traffic filling the once bare highway, he felt relieved the darkness would now cover his injuries.

Observing the sunset, his heart filled with fear, knowing the first day had passed and he was no closer to finding Amber than before.

“I can’t imagine you being forced to spend the night with that monster, he said. “I am so sorry. You both must be terrified.”

“Carlos Ramirez,” he whispered, his inner rage erupting at the mere utterance of the name, “ordered a hit on my mother, and kidnapped my daughter.

“He’s not going to get away with it this time. I will divert his attention from the girls onto myself. If I can get him to spend all his energy coming after me, maybe he won’t have the time t—”

Keeping his eyes on the road, his mind wandered to the day Amber was born. As tears streamed down his face, he continued, “I’m coming, Amber. Hold on. Do not give up, do not give in. I will find you. No matter who gets in my way. Nothing is going to stop me. I love you.”

“Think, Andrew, think,” he yelled, slamming his hand down on the steering wheel. “I’m such an idiot. So, now Carlos knows I’m unpredictable, much good that does me if I’m dead, stupid.”

He grimaced. Talking had aggravated the wounds, heightening his discomfort. He glanced down at his side. It was clear he did not have much time left and he knew it.

With his mind racing for a solution, his body fading quickly, every turn or even minor shift in traffic greatly intensifying an already delicate situation, his mind again wandered, this time to a place where his circumstances had been frighteningly similar.

Immersed in thought, he was oblivious to the rapid decrease in the speed of traffic, nor did his mind comprehend the sudden change of the traffic light.

As the stolen Audi A5 collided with the station wagon in front of him, he screamed in anguish. The ejected airbag, having connected with the edge of the shrapnel jutting from his side, thrust it deeper into his abdomen.

The pain was deafening, the sensation in his legs lost as darkness poured in around him, and everything faded to black. Drifting in and out of consciousness, the agony disappeared, as thoughts of Kelly and Amber flooded his mind.

Overtaken by a presence of warmth, he was drawn to memories of a different time. A time before his marriage had fallen apart, a time when they were still a family.

Snapped back into consciousness by the boisterous unpleasantries being hurled from those in the street, his immediate instinct was to get a better look.

Struggling to locate and keep hold of the power window switch, it was not until the infuriated driver of the station wagon began marching toward him that his adrenaline kicked in, equipping him with limited, but sufficient motor control.

Shifting the car into reverse, he sped around the small, angry crowd of drivers, proceeding through the intersection into the oncoming traffic. “Sorry, folks,” he yelled out his window, “just need to squeeze through here.”

Dr. Bishop, at Dallas Regional, I wonder if she would still help me, he thought, as he swerved onto the sidewalk, barely missing a pedestrian to avoid a second collision.

Inching his cell phone out of his pocket with his thumb and index finger, he dialed her private line.

“Hiya,” answered the voice on the other end.

“Dr. Bishop, hello. This is Agent Brush,” he replied, taking the wheel with his left, enabling the speaker phone with his right.

The acute burning sensation present in the shredded, gaping flesh of his left wrist was the least of his concern, until one twist too many had loosened the second makeshift bandage, aggravating the wound.

As blood erupted from the puncture, he dropped the phone and immediately applied pressure, taking control of the wheel with his knee.

“Andrew, are you there,” asked Dr. Bishop, her voice quiet, suspicious.

“Yes, I’m here,” he replied through clinched teeth.

“It’s nothing short of perplexing that you rang when you did,” continued the doctor in her pronounced North Wales accent.

“Just moments ago, I received a phone call from your superior. After educating me on your current status with the bureau, he quite openly threatened to toss me in the nick if I so much as spoke with you.”

“Eduardo threatened you? That doesn’t make any sense. He transferred in only a few months ago. How would he even know about you?”

”Your guess is as good as mine, Andrew. I must say though, it was a rather odd conversation to be had, one that was absolutely out of the clear blue. I haven’t heard from anyone at the bureau in nearly three years. So, tell me, what is going on?”

Releasing his grip on his left wrist, he picked the phone up off the passenger seat and laid it on his lap, careful to promptly reapply pressure. Glancing down at his legs, he noticed a puddle forming under him.

“I’ve lost a lot of blood, Bishop. I don’t have much time. I need your—”

“Your voice is cutting out? Did you say you’ve lost blood?”

“The pain, Bishop, it’s intense,” he replied, his voice a quiver. “I really need your help.”

“With all due respect, Andrew, I’m afraid I’m going to need a bit more to go on.”

“What are you talking about? You’re a medical doctor. I need medical attention. It’s that simple.”

“I’m afraid not. You see, according to the news, you’re a fugitive, a mass murderer of innocent warehouse workers.”

“What in the hell are you talking about?”

“The story is on every local news channel. Your superior confirmed it when we spoke. There’s a warrant out for your arrest.”

“A warrant? I can’t believe this,” he said, rubbing his forehead. “What am I going to do?”

“Well, for starters, you’re going to get your ass in here so I can patch you up. Then, you’re going to tell me just what is going on, and how you managed to get yourself involved in such a mess. Are we clear?”

“It’s bad,” he replied. “They have Amber.”

“Amber? They have your daughter?”

“I was in deep cover. I infiltrated a cartel. After eighteen months, my cover was somehow compromised and they took her as leverage.”

“How did they manage to get to your daughter before you?”

“I didn’t even know I had been compromised. I still don’t know how long they knew.”

“Long enough to orchestrate this mess.”

“Yeah.”

“Tell me this has nothing to do with the cartel who ordered the hit on your mother back in ninety-five?”

“Same bastards, different decade.”

“Andrew, how did you think this was going to end? You know as well as I, El Diablo is not an organization to get mixed up in. Why do you think no one was willing to take the job?”

“That’s neither here nor there. Point is: I need your help.”

“And, how did you not know you’d been compromised? You’re telling me there was no indication?”

“I’m almost positive it was an inside job.”

“Now you’re just reaching, Agent Brush.”

“Am I? Why?”

“The very notion is absurd.”

“Is it?”

“What’s with your questions? Yes, it’s absurd. Unless you can present substantial evidence to support your claim, I’m afraid you’ll be considered a liar and a loon.”

“Do you want to hear what happened, or not?”

“Yes, of course. Tell me about the abduction.”

“Twenty-one hours ago, Amber and her friend Amy were traveling on county road seventeen when they were ambushed in the middle of the street. Both are missing.”

“Collateral,” whispered Dr. Bishop.

“They wanted Amber, not Amy. She never should have been there. She means nothing to them. God only knows what they’ll do to her.”

“That blood is not on your head,” replied Dr. Bishop. “It is a tragedy of war.”

“Tragedy of war? Thanks for the effort, but this isn’t exactly war.”

“You know as well as I, the drug cartels pose a greater threat to the United States than Al-Qaida. This is war. You are a soldier. But, unlike recent wars, this one is fought on our own soil, against men more ruthless than the government cares to admit.”

“Interesting perspective, but it doesn’t justify the death of an innocent, teenage girl.”

“I didn’t mean that, Andrew. I just meant—”

“Save—it—doc,” slurred Brush.

“Stay with me, Andrew. Are you to the hospital, yet?”

There was silence on the other end.

“Bloody hell, I can’t have you dying, not now. Wake up, damn it,” she screamed. “Maintain your course. Their lives depend on it.”

“I’m here, he whispered. “Almost there.”

“What just happened there?”

“I’m not completely sure. I’m okay, though.”

“What’s that racket in the background?”

“I’m rolling the windows down to help keep me conscious.”

“Yeah, that won’t help you stay conscious.”

“Whatever, just keep me engaged.”

“Right, so tell me, what is the FBI doing to assist in the investigation? They are actively pursuing those responsible, yes?”

“My SAC, the one you spoke with earlier, kept stonewalling me until I finally handed over my gun and badge. I think he’s on the take. He so much as told me so.”

“I do believe I’ve missed something.”

“Eduardo threatened my family. He told me Carlos would kill everyone I care about. He even knew about my wife’s pregnancy. He threatened to kill the baby.”

“Where did this threat take place?”

“His office, right before I quit.”

“So, the warehouse accusation is fabricated?”

“That is one of three warehouses operated by El Diablo. I barely got out of there with my life.”

“Did you really think killing twenty-plus, I’m guessing highly armed guerillas, would make a difference? I’m astonished you made it out alive.”

“That makes two of us, Bishop. Listen, Carlos is the most intelligent, powerful, murderous sociopath I’ve ever met. I thought doing something unpredictable would through him off his game, gain myself a slight advantage.”

“According to your superior, you most definitely went the full monty. What he doesn’t know is how bad you cocked it up. Why did you turn to me, anyway?”

“We’ve done this dance before, Bishop.”

“Maybe so, but you were never quite this snookered. Wanted by your country and the cartel, you will be the target of more than one manhunt. You know this.”

“Just patch me up and you’ll never see me again.”

“Agent Brush, if you are accurate in your claims about the cartel owning agents within the bureau, then there is a storm coming of which I’m afraid you’re dead center.”

“That scares the hell out of me, Bishop, but right now, I can’t worry about it. If I don’t get medical attention soon, none of it will matter. Can I trust you?”

“Are you off your trolley?”

“Yes—maybe—I don’t know what that means.”

“It could cost me my license helping you.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Are you to the hospital, yet?”

“Turning in now.”

“Stick to the established protocol. You do remember it? And, no fooling about, there is much at stake.”

“Thank you, Etta. See you upstairs in fifteen.”

“Very well, and Agent Brush?”

“Yes, doctor?”

“Watch for the cameras, they are everywhere.”

 

~

 

“Kristen,” said Dr. Bishop, phoning her assistant.

“Yes, doctor,” replied Kristen.

“I’m going to need you to cancel my dinner reservation with Dean Katic.”

“Yes, doctor. And, what would you like me to tell her? You know she’s going to ask.”

“Tell her it’s an administrative nightmare.”

Disconnecting the call, Dr. Bishop scooted her gym bag to the middle of the floor. Transferring the contents into her locked cabinet, she left her office for the fourth floor supply closet.

“What’s the matter,” asked Dr. Parikh. “Is the second floor running low this month?”

“Just performing early inventory,” she replied, shutting the closet door, “trying to keep those costs down.”

“I hear you. Well, have a good night, doctor,” he said, entering the elevator.

Alone in the hall, she once again opened the supply door and stepped inside. Locking herself in, she unzipped her gym bag, gathering everything she thought she might need for the operation.

Leaving the supply closet undetected, she hurried to the filing room outside her office. An unkept patient room located at the end of the west hall, it was recently transformed into a catch-all for files and supply surplus.

Still fully functional, Dr. Bishop felt convinced it was the perfect place for an off-the-books operation.

“Where is he,” she whispered, expediting her preparation. “My nerves can’t take this much longer.”

Peering through the cracked door, anticipating his appearance amidst the countless others wandering the overcrowded hall, she was powerless to spot him.

Taking a quick look at the clock behind her, she grew increasingly concerned. “It’s been twenty-three minutes,” she whispered. “He said fifteen. This is not like him. He should be here by now. Something is wrong.”

After standing-by for an additional three minutes, unable to contain her anxiety any longer, she resolved to retrace the predetermined route he would have taken from the parking lot.

Dialing his cell, she panicked when her call routed straight to his voicemail. With still no sign of him on the floor, she raced through the winding maze of emergency stairs, less trafficked corridors, following to a tee the overly complicated route they developed years ago.

I used to think his paranoia was tosh, she thought, until the mafia sent their hired assassin to my hospital to finish him off, nearly killing the both of us. That’s a mistake I won’t make again.

Putting her fingers to her neck, she followed the scar up her spine, trailing it to her hairline, where it disappeared.

The nightmares only recently ceased and now it seems we are back in the thick of it, she thought, as she removed her heels, descending the final staircase two steps at a time. I truly would be quite happy with him retiring from the bureau to a more sedentary line of work.

In a full sprint toward the exit, she slowed her pace to a brisk walk upon noticing the subtle, disapproving glances from a few nearby doctors.

Bursting through the side doors, she discarded her heels, scanning the parking lot for anyone who appeared severely injured.

Using the dusk to dawn lights to her advantage, she moved at an angle that eliminated the glare from the windshields, allowing her to clear multiple vehicles in seconds.

Several minutes in, having concluded Brush to not be one of the few standing in the lot, nor parked in a vehicle inside the first three rows, did she rush to row nine.

“Come on,” said Dr. Bishop. “Where are you?”

With just under eighty vehicles scanned, her hosiery muddy and torn, her feet cut and bruised, she leaned against a tree for a moments rest.

Gazing into the sea of vehicles, her eyes were drawn to a smashed up Audi taking up two spaces near the rear of the lot.

“That had better have been an emergency,” she said. “Otherwise—Wait a second. Is that—?”

“Oh dear God,” she said in a pant, dashing to the car. “Andrew, can you hear me,” she asked, pounding on the driver’s window.

He was nonresponsive. Seeing him sitting unconscious in a pool of blood, she yanked on the door handle with such force it broke off in her hand. Frightened for his life, she rushed to the passenger side, only to find that door locked as well.

It was then she noticed the enormous piece of steel lodged in his side. “Oh my,” she muttered, so many thoughts running through her head, no time to speak any of them.

How am I going to get him out, she thought, scouring the lot for anything she could use to break the window.

Tromping barefoot through one of the hospital’s many flower gardens, she discovered a circle of decorative bricks surrounding a newly planted maple tree. Swiping one from the top, she wiped the mud onto her skirt, gripping it as tight as her hands would allow.

Raising it above her head, intent on crashing it through the window, she realized the blowback, however minimal, was bound to embed shards of glass into her exposed flesh.

Wrapping her lab coat around her hands and arms the best she could, she covered her face with her shirt. Her eyes closed, protected by her glasses, she proceeded to smash the brick through the passenger’s rear window.

Losing her grip on the brick, it shattered the window, coming to rest on the driver rear seat. Careful to avoid the broken glass, she reached through, unlocking the doors.

Climbing into the passenger’s seat, she stretched across his lifeless body, opening his door from the inside.

“My dear man,” she said, briefly examining his wounds. “I’m afraid we must hurry if something is to be done at a point where it still matters.”

Shaking her lab coat free of unwanted glass fragments, she laid it over him. “I am getting too old for such activities,” she whispered, grunting as she lifted him from his seat. “If my arms don’t give out, I’m quite certain my legs will.”

Practically carrying him into the hospital through the service entrance, they quietly disappeared into the service elevator, while the custodians were breaking in the kitchenette.

As the doors closed, she breathed a sigh of relief. Pressing the floor button with her elbow, she closed her eyes, hoping it would not stop until reaching level two.

Darting into the first room off the elevator, she laid Brush onto a spare bed, covering him with a sheet. Guiding him toward the filing room, she offered a wearied smile to the nurses. “The paperwork never ends.”

The nurses chuckled.

Locking the door behind her, she quickly uncovered him.

Briefly waking, he began speaking incoherently.

“Stay quiet,” she whispered, removing a cannula from her gym bag. “I’m going to give you a sedative. Now rest.”

 

~

 

“Well, I believe that is the last of it,” said Dr. Bishop, removing her latex gloves. Beginning with her hands, she disinfected up to her elbows before sliding on a fresh pair.

“Despite the subpar working conditions and lack of assistance,” she continued, “it appears we’ve muddled through it, my friend. Extracting the two rounds was effortless, stitching your shoulder, abdomen, and upper thigh, a cinch.

“No, it was your wrist that was the challenge. The flesh was, in places, too shredded for sutures. Nevertheless, we emerged victoriously. It will, however, most certainly leave a scar.”

Hunting through her gym bag, she collected two sets of tweezers and an opti-visor. “I suppose it’s time I attend to that shrapnel embedded in your backside.”

Two hours and thirty-nine minutes later, having dug through his back and neck, extracting every remnant of wood, metal, and glass she could locate, she sat the tweezers on the counter.

“A few dabs of topical antibiotic here-and-there, a bandage or two, and this operation never happened,” she said, switching out his IV bag for a fresh one.

 

~

 

“Your vitals are improving,” said Dr. Bishop, returning her stethoscope to her lab coat pocket, “certainly better than yesterday. Excuse me while I make a call.”

Using the phone in the room, she dialed her office number, hoping her assistant would answer.

“Dallas Regional, Hospital Administrator’s Office.”

“Good morning, Kristen. Listen, I need you to do something for me. I’ve been in the filing room all night.”

“Okay, Dr. Bishop,” chuckled Kristen. “I’m ready.”

“This audit is taking longer than expected. I need you to phone Dean Katic, explaining I will be occupied with this all weekend and into early next week.”

“Yes, doctor.”

“Also, let her know I am handling the subpoena for patient files, as well as the inventory control issues. The filing room door is to remain locked at all times. I do not want multiple hands in this.”

“I understand. I will relay the message.”

 

~

 

It was early Tuesday morning. Dr. Bishop had just finished cleaning and re-bandaging his wounds. She was in the process of hanging a fresh IV bag when he woke for the first time since the trauma.

Even with his mind cloudy from the narcotics, he was distressed, angry. When she approached to calm him, he shoved her back into the filing cabinet.

“What in the hell is wrong with you,” she asked.

“Where am I,” he said, attempting to sit up, the pain in his side agonizing. “What happened?”

“You’re a fugitive, remember?”

“Etta, how did you find me?”

“I hardly did. I’ve had to lie to many esteemed colleagues, not to mention my superior, to keep you safe.”

“Thank you,” he said, lying back down.

“May I,” she asked, waving a cool, damp cloth in front of him. “This is for your forehead.”

“My mouth—”

“And, these are for your mouth,” she interrupted, handing him a cup of ice chips.

“How am I doing? Am I well enough to leave,” he asked, shaking a few chips loose.

“You’re doing quite well, healing up nicely.”

“I have to go. I lost a whole night stopping here.”

“Since you’re awake, we may as well check your vitals,” she said, removing the stethoscope from around her neck. “And, you lost more than a night, lad. You’ve been here two and a half days.”

“Two and a half—You’ve got to be kidding me? You do know my daughter is missing, right? I mean—We did have this conversation?”

“Andrew, to allow your body time to heal, sedatives and narcotics had to be administered. You were in sad shape, fellow. You still are.”

“How do you explain—justify—keeping me here? You know the stakes. You know who I’m up against.”

“I also know you need to be as close to one-hundred percent as possible before you initiate phase two of your rescue. Whatever it is you’re going to do once you get out of here shouldn’t be done in your condition.”

“If either girl dies because I didn’t get to them—”

“It will be because you half-assed it right into a lion’s den,” interrupted Dr. Bishop. “I saved your life. Your sorry ass was lying unconscious in the parking lot when I found you.”

“I appreciate you saving me, but I can’t sit here and wait for a full recovery. Carlos will burn my life to the ground if I don’t make a move soon.”

“I understand. I do. This situation is unique. The road ahead is both dangerous and taxing.”

Brush remained silent.

“But, you need to stay through tonight. You have made remarkable progress. I’d hate to see it reversed.”

“It will all be reversed if I don’t stop Carlos,” he replied, swinging his legs off to the right.

Proceeding to stand, using a filing cabinet for support, his legs gave out. Falling flat on his face, he clinched his teeth, releasing a low, guttural scream.

“Oh right, GSW to the stomach. How do you plan on going after the cartel with everything-you-have, when you can’t even remember the locations of your injuries?”

“I didn’t know about that one,” he replied, shooting her an icy glare.

“You were shot and you weren’t aware? Perhaps we should have a chat, inventory your injuries and such.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I’ll be fine,” he said, crawling to his feet.

“Andrew, I know you are angry with me, but you needn’t leave just yet. I understand the urgency, but if you go out there and pretend you’re one hundred percent, you’re going to get yourself killed.”

Brush stayed quiet, spending the next fifteen minutes dressing in silence.

“Are you just going to ignore me all morning? Pretend you’re not half the man you were three days ago?”

Using the wall for support, he limped over to her.

“Etta, you don’t know how much it means to me what you’ve done here. If it wasn’t for you, I would’ve died in that parking lot,” he said, pointing behind him. “I get that. You’ve risked your career and livelihood for me, and for that I’m grateful.

“But, I have to continue on, regardless of my physical condition. My daughter is counting on me. And, I fear if I don’t make a move soon, they’re going to cut their losses, which is something I’m not prepared to live with.”

“Brush—”

“Etta,” he interrupted, “so many times in my career, I have stood toe-to-toe with pure, unabashed evil. From child murderers to ritualistic ante-mortem dismemberments, and these people, the leaders of this cartel, make every one of those seem like child’s play.”

“My apologies, I didn’t realize.”

“And, you want to know what’s worse? Everything that’s happened up until now, is my fault. Everything that happens as a result of what I’ve done is on me.”

“There is simply no way you could have known. You must have realized that by now.”

“I know, I do, but if I had just listened to Kelly, been at home with my family where I belonged, none of this would have ever happened.”

“You cover was airtight for eighteen months, Agent Brush. A cover that solid doesn’t just crack without indication. Perhaps, you are onto something with your theory of a mole inside the bureau.”

Brush threw his fist into the wall. “Because of my damn pride, my daughter and her best friend have been dragged into something they shouldn’t even know exists. Just thinking about them trapped with Carlos makes me want to blow his head off.”

“Before you go, would you care to hear my psychological insight,” she asked, taking a seat on the armrest of a chair.

“You’re one of the best shrinks the bureau ever had,” he replied, leaning against the wall.

“Is that a yes, then?”

Brush nodded.

“I believe you are going to get the girls back alive.”

“That’s your keen psychological insight?”

“Let me finish. These individuals, however sadistic, have made one crucial mistake that I believe you’re going to capitalize on. In fact, I already see it happening.”

“What mistake is that?”

“By taking your daughter, they’ve made it personal.”

“I think that was the point, Bishop. To make it personal, so I would do something stupid like getting blown to hell in a warehouse.”

“You do your best work under crippling pressure, Andrew. You always have. That makes your greatest weakness, your greatest strength.”

“I’m not sure if I can win this one,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “These guys are heartless.”

“That they are.”

“I feel like I’m failing the girls if I don’t give it everything I have. They don’t deserve what’s happening to them. And, only I can stop it.”

“Taking the fight to them will not be easy. Brute force attacks will not work. They’re more equipped with weaponry, not to mention their unmatched manpower. You will have to fight them with your intelligence, especially now with your injuries.

“Make every move count. The warehouse invasion was a great move, but the loss was unacceptable.”

“It was a little reckless, but it had to be done. Carlos must think I’m crazy by now, which will play to my advantage. I need him unsettled, more cautious; it opens the door for what’s next.”

“With all due respect, Andrew, you are incredibly insane.”

“To know your enemy, you must become your enemy. And, only in becoming your enemy, are you then able defeat your enemy. Am I wrong?”

“A botched quote misattributed to Sun Tzu, how appropriate. No matter how thick it gets, Andrew, you must maintain your objectivity. Keep clear judgment, your emotions in check, and you will bring the girls home.”

“Thank you,” he replied, limping to the door.

“One more thing,” said Dr. Bishop.

“What’s that,” he asked, his back to her.

“I’ve been a medical doctor for quite a long time. Bodies tell an undeniable story.”

“Where are you going with this, Bishop?”

“In examining your wounds—location, severity, correlation of weapon to striking surface, I gained insight into your enemy.

“I’m listening,” he said, turning to face her.

“These individuals are skilled.”

“I don’t know if they’re as skilled at firing a weapon as they are strategic maneuvering. It’s near impossible for any single person to come out alive up against an army of guerillas.”

“Evidence suggests the contrary. In examining your various wounds as a whole, it seems to me they were aiming to immobilize, not kill.”

Brush stood silent.

“Your wrist for example,” she continued, “to prevent you from firing your weapon, your leg, to keep you from escaping their grasp. You understand.”

“My wrist was on the receiving end of a ricochet. It was the wrong wrist. You should be able to determine that from the wound.

“And, if you’re planning on immobilizing a guy, you don’t aim for the thigh, you blow the knee. I think you’re reading a little too much into this, doctor.”

“Perhaps, but I am certain your body cannot sustain a second, similar experience. It hardly survived this one.”

“I get it. Be careful.”

Doctor Bishop nodded. “Take care of yourself.”

“Will do. And, thanks again for your help.”

“Of course, let me wheel you out.”

“I’ll walk.”

“I’ll accompany you.”

 

~

 

“That’s all too similar to a gruesome murder scene,” he said, pausing at the sight of his blood. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say someone bled out in their car.”

“You can imagine what I thought when I found you. When I realized you still had a few items in the back seat, I moved the car to the back lot, concealing it with a car cover. Told security it was—”

“I’m going to need another car,” he interrupted, offering a faint smile. “Even if it hasn’t been reported stolen, it’s in too poor of condition to drive unnoticed.”

“I know that look, and the answer is no. I’ve already done too much.”

“Okay. Well, the other option is for me to steal one,” he said, scanning the lot, “be prepared to lie to the police when they show up and discover this one.”

“I feel I will regret this,” she replied, reaching into her pocket. “You owe me,” she continued, reluctantly handing him the keys to her 2015 Rolls-Royce Ghost.

“While I’m flattered, a beat up pickup would be the ideal vehicle for me to use to blend in, not this.”

“Just take it before I change my mind. I will be pulling an all-nighter tonight, so I won’t have to report it stolen for another fourteen hours.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. It was due to your unforeseen, quite lengthy stay I am behind on my duties.”

“I don’t want the police that close, not yet anyway. Once I find another, I will park this in a public place and text you the address. With Eduardo digging into my past like he is, I can’t be too careful. I may need you again.”

“Having the locals on your tail may not be such a bad idea, Andrew,” she said, popping her trunk, “just as long as you can keep them at arms distance.”

“Not yet, eventually, yes, but not yet,” he replied, transferring his weapons and equipment into her trunk.

Assisting him into her car, she held a bag up near the window. “Don’t forget your meds,” she said, tossing the plastic bag through the window. “In that bag contains everything you need to get well, and then some.”

“Don’t worry about the Audi,” said Brush, shifting the Ghost into drive. “I’ll be back for it.”

“Godspeed, Agent Brush,” she whispered, as she watched him speed off into the night. “I do hope you find them alive.”

 

~

 

Uncertain of exactly how to proceed, Brush took his time cruising home. Winding through the neighborhoods at around twenty miles per, he used the opportunity to clear his head. Refocusing his attention, he buried the helplessness, clinging to the anger.

“Get your head on straight,” he said, turning in to the packed overflow lot of a crowded shopping center. “I’m no good to anyone if I don’t keep my objectivity. This is just another mission, a simple hostage recovery.”

He killed the engine. “With Eduardo so much as admitting guilt, the question is no longer about the possibility of double agents, but how many? Is Eduardo working alone? Who else could be involved?

“None of that makes much difference at this point,” he continued, “What’s important is where Carlos thinks I will strike next. I’ve got to get ahold of those files.”

Abandoning the Ghost in the overflow lot, he wrapped his weapons in a blanket he found in the trunk, quietly disappearing into the lot behind the building.

Finding the least trafficked corner, he removed his lock pick from the blanket and entered through the driver’s front.

It was an old model Buick, the exterior the faded remains of a once flawless appearance. Rust lined the wheel wells, cracks splintered the windshield in every direction, the interior stained, torn.

“Perfect,” he whispered, prying off the access cover beneath the steering wheel.

Locating the wiring harness connector, he stripped the ignition switch power supply and the connection for the electrical circuits. Twisting them together, he then tapped both against the ignition wire, creating a spark, the car’s reaction a sputter.

“Come on,” he said, pulling himself to his feet.

Scanning the lot for police, vagrants, or anyone who could expose him, he knelt back down, once again tapping the wires against one another until the car started.

“Carlos never told me about the ranch,” he said, veering onto 75N. “There must be something in his file I can use. That is the only building stateside he never mentioned. He has no idea I know it exists.”

Ten minutes into his drive, only a third of the way home, all sensation is his right leg suddenly disappeared. Having lost full control, unable to boost acceleration to that of existing traffic, he panicked.

Not thinking, he jerked the steering wheel a sharp right, guiding the car off the road, through a ditch, and into a tree.

Not allowing himself to give in to the panic for one second longer than he already had, he pulled his limp leg clear of the pedal and shifted the car into reverse. Using his left, he backed onto the highway, flooring it before anyone was the wiser.

Fifty minutes later, he was home. Selling the car as scrap at a junk yard six blocks from his house, he hailed a cab for the final stretch, paying the driver well for his discretion.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Just remember what I said.”

“Yes, sir, I ain’t never seen you before.”

 

~

 

Brewing coffee in his Bunn for the first time in eighteen months, he paused, inhaling as the rich, smooth aroma of Arabic beans filled the kitchen air.

His FBI mug in hand, he sat silently on his couch, deep in thought, analyzing his situation, contemplating his next attack.

Am I baiting myself by believing Carlos wouldn’t keep the girls at the airport warehouse? Does he want me to think that, so I’ll hunt somewhere else?

I feel like I’m walking into a trap either way, he thought, standing to his feet. I wonder if I still have those files.

He limped over to the living room closet. Lined with jackets, he split them down the middle, revealing an otherwise hidden wall safe.

Upon scanning his thumb print and entering the access code, the bolts receded, releasing the door. In it contained one file, a thick manila folder entitled: El Diablo.

“I’ve not laid my eyes on this in a long time,” he said, tossing the folder onto the kitchen table.

Compiled within was everything the bureau had accumulated on El Diablo. Combined with information he acquired over the years, and without the bureau’s knowledge, he knew the names and addresses of every known associate, private residence, business-front, legitimate industry, and shell corporation.

Working through the night, into the early morning, he scoured over the reports. Aided by his personal knowledge of Carlos, he began piecing together a profile.

Treating the kidnapping as though it were a serial case, he called upon his skills as a profiler to assist in gaining insight into Carlos’ psyche.

Understanding he lacked the luxuries of an actual serial case, he felt confident the process would still hold true, as he held a great advantage. Working with Carlos on a daily basis for over a year, he believed there was little left to learn.

Scanning the documents for pictures, he removed a collection from an older report. “That’s the one,” he said, downing the last of his coffee. “The one they think no one knows about. That’s where they’re keeping the girls; El Diablo’s American headquarters.”

Opening the refrigerator, he found it empty, save for a handful of mustard packets and a jar of moldy strawberry jam. Unlocking his standup freezer, he grabbed a package of frost-covered steaks.

“There’s no way these aren’t freezer burnt,” he said, separating the steaks with a butcher knife before placing one in a skillet, “but it’s food.”

Turning on the faucet, he hunted for a glass, allowing the water time to run cold. Settling with filling his empty coffee mug, he forced down his first round of medication.

“His profile suggests he would take the girls to his headquarters,” Brush said, turning the steak, “because it’s fortified, and as far as he’s concerned, unknown to our government.”

Where is that report, he thought, sorting through the various files until he found the one he was looking for. “Bingo,” he said, “I knew I never filed it with the bureau.”

Pulling out a stack of papers bound together by several alligator clips, he pushed the others to the far end of the table, clearing a spot to work. It was a copy of his official report, along with several pictures of the compound.

“The first time I ever laid eyes on Carlos. The first time I came face-to-face with Juan after our brawl on top of that mountain in Mena. We thought he had died,” laughed Brush. “How naïve we were.”

Forking the steak from the pan onto a plate, he cut it into small pieces while skimming his report.

Posing as a guest at El Diablo’s annual summer fiesta, I was able to infiltrate their ranch, capturing close-up photos of a few warehouses and other surrounding outbuildings…

…By calling in a few favors, my contact at the NSA provided the FBI with satellite imagery, offering a rough, but complete view of the terrain.

Unlike El Diablo’s other known sites on American soil, this one is of particular interest and concern. Vast, modern, and well concealed, it sits on a nine hundred twenty-seven acre ranch, sixty-five miles south of Austin.

Two hundred miles from the heart of their operation in Dallas, it provides for the perfect cover.

While, at first glance, it establishes itself as a reputable ranch, upon closer inspection, I discovered irrefutable, frankly damning evidence of cocaine manufacturing with possible prison-like quarters.

Gathering together every picture taken, he closely examined each one, intent on remembering every facet of that evening eight years ago.

From what he could recall, the ranch was immaculate, every inch of land flawless. To the unsuspecting eye, it held the appearance of a booming farm owned by a picture-perfect family.

With impeccable landscaping, every tree, flower garden, and bird bath intently surrounded by mulch and decorative bricks; creek rock walkways leading to every plant in the yard.

The shrubbery always perfectly pruned, never an uneven branch; the lawn so well kept, not a weed in sight. A seemingly endless array of multi-hued tulips lined the driveways and sidewalks, the colors breathtaking.

Access to the property was restricted by a gate, one part of an elaborate network of motion sensors, high-quality audio, and twenty-four hour IP HD CCTV.

Fully equipped with video content analysis and facial recognition software, the chances of a breach were near impossible.

Electrified metal mesh lay just beneath the surface. Invisible to the naked eye, it provided the security of an electric fence, the image of a farming residence.

With guard posts scattered throughout, spotlights everywhere, what was not detected by camera would be by the rotating soldiers.

Direct access to the ranch was restricted to a three-mile cobblestone road; guarded around the clock by two armed guards, shifts changing every four hours. Dressed in plain clothes, hidden from sight, they stayed in the shadows, remaining invisible to the outside world.

A mile and a half in, like clockwork, four armed guards would present themselves. Stationed behind two six-foot tall hedges, they maintained the element of surprise.

Ordered to check every vehicle entering the premises, they wasted no time in positioning themselves, surrounding each vehicle within a matter of seconds. Allowing none to pass without a thorough search, Carlos ensured protocol was followed without exception.

This was the first of three checkpoints guests were required to pass through before arriving at the main house.

An enormous, stunning, one-level log cabin, its beauty was unmistakable. Unfortunately, the inside held a different story.

Once to the main house, guests were restricted to the premises, not permitted beyond the outside patio. Guards were posted at each entry and exit, while others meandered about as crowd control, ensuring security was maintained.

A fully operational ranch, there were numerous outbuildings within sight. The satellite imagery identified horse stables, equipment and maintenance sheds, feed barns, milking parlors, chicken coups, meat lockers, outhouses, living quarters, management offices, and sentry towers.

On his night of surveillance, Brush had discovered a dirt road leading from the living quarters to a barn one mile northeast of the main house.

Having noticed a significant amount of traffic between the two buildings that evening, he carried a chair to the edge of the patio and waited.

It would not be until hours later he would observe a shift change. With workers waiting outside the door for the others to finish up, something caught his eye. As they exchanged respirator masks, eye goggles, and latex gloves, four guards showed to relieve the four inside.

“Four guards stationed inside a drug manufacturing plant seem a little excessive considering the level security otherwise,” he said, quickly stuffing the files back inside the folder, “unless there’s more going on in the building than drug manufacturing.”

Standing to his feet, he hesitated before heading to his bedroom. “I don’t know what Bishop gave me, but the pain seems better,” he said, lifting his shirt to examine his abdominal wounds. “As long as I am able to regain my mobility long enough to extract the girls, I’ll be fine.

“Today, I will present this evidence to Eduardo. He will have no choice but to reinstate me. This is enough for a search warrant,” he continued, his hand gripping the doorknob. “I got you, you bastard. I’m coming for you.”

Twisting the knob, he used the door for support as he entered the room. Flipping the light switch, his eyes were immediately drawn to a watch box placed precisely in the center of his bed.

His comforter still as taut as he had left it, with nothing else out of place, he leaned into the doorframe so as to increase his stability. Reaching for his firearm, he slid his compact .45 from the small of his back.

Clearing the room of possible assailants, he continued by checking the locks on the windows before proceeding into the bathroom.

Upon confirming every room in the house was empty, windows and doors locked, no sign of forced entry, he found himself back in his bedroom, peering across the room at the box, his stomach in knots.

Holstering his weapon, he used his nightstand to assist in lowering himself to the floor. Grabbing the flashlight he kept beside his bed, he examined his box springs for a pressure sensor. “No bomb,” he said, “but what’s in the box,” he continued, climbing to his feet.

Extending his left arm across the bed, he reached for the box, gently sliding it across the comforter toward himself. “No sudden movements,” he whispered, gripping his tactical knife with his right hand.

Using it, he gave a moment’s pause before slicing through the tape securing the lid. “This is it,” he said, wiping his brow.

Careful to first steady his hand, he slid his knife under the lid, lifting the flap. Stuffed with newspaper, all he noticed upon opening the box was an odor so foul, he gagged. Radiating from the box, it was clear to him what was contained in the package.

Digging through the crumpled newspaper, he found, at the bottom, what he knew was inevitable, but in his heart hoped would never happen. “Son of a bitch,” he yelled, uncovering a note safety-pinned to a human ear.

Try something like that again and it will be your daughter’s head in a box. You have two days. Return to me what is mine and the girls live. Do not do as I say and I will return the girls to you in pieces. Feel better, Agent Brush.

 

~

 

“Answer, damn-it,” he said, racing, as best he could, to his neighbor’s driveway.

Placing the call on speakerphone, he laid his cell on their car roof before stepping back to kick in the window.

“FBI Forensics, this is Mainard,” said the voice on the other end.

“Once second, Mainard.”

Lifting his leg, he was once again made aware of his injuries, and the limitations they imposed. Removing his firearm, he gripped the barrel and raised his hand to shatter the window.

“What in the hell do you think you’re doing,” asked the neighbor.

“Sorry, Ken, but I need your car.”

“The hell you do. I don’t even know your name, mister. Get off my property. Don’t make me call the cops.”

Moving his hand from the barrel to the grip, he took one step toward Ken and raised his weapon. “I am taking your car. Try to stop me, I will shoot you. If I see you reach for your cell, I will shoot you.”

Ken stood silent, his eyes wide.

“Do you understand me?”

“I understand,” replied Ken, frantic. “Here, take my keys,” he continued, tossing them to Brush.

“Don’t do anything stupid, Ken,” said Brush, sliding in to the car. “Because when this is over, I will be back.”

Ken nodded.

“In fact, give me your phone—now.”

“Here,” he replied, feeling his pockets, trying to locate his phone. “Here it is,” he said, handing it to Brush through the window.

Brush slid off the back cover and removed the battery. Flinging it onto the floorboard, he returned to his conversation with Mainard.

“You still there, Mainard?”

“I’m here. Who is this?”

“It’s Brush.”

“My God, Brush,” replied Mainard, his voice a whisper. “Is what they’re saying about you true? Have you gone off the reservation? Your mind cracked from being undercover for so long?”

“That’s crap and you know it,” replied Brush, taking a deep breath to calm his mounting rage. “I need your help.”

“I’m afraid I can’t. You’re no longer with the bureau. As far as they’re concerned, you’re a fugitive.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Afraid not. SAC Rodriguez held an office-wide meeting informing the field office of your status and to report directly to him if you made contact. My hands are tied.”

“Listen to me, Mainard. Human remains were found in my house. These guys came into my home and left a human ear on my bed. Do you understand me? That means Carlos cut off my daughter’s ear and delivered it.

“I’m not working against the bureau, here. I am trying to get my daughter back, to finish what I started a year and a half ago.”

“What do you need?”

“I need you to tell me who the ear belongs to—age, sex, and the condition of the body when the ear was removed.”

“Brush, test results take weeks. There is very little I can determine from an examination.”

“I know just how much you can determine from an examination. And, that’s all I need, the opinion of an expert, someone who’s been in forensics his whole career.”

“I’m not sure about this, Brush. If SAC Rodriguez were to discover I’ve been aiding and abetting—”

“He will never know, I swear. Just help me out. It’s my daughter, Mainard. Two innocent lives are on the line.”

“You’re already here, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Parking lot across the street, down two.”

“Why do you trust me? What makes you think I won’t turn you in? Hell, I could have agents surrounding your car within minutes, if not seconds.”

“Professional rapport, I would hope—or perhaps sympathy for my daughter. Maybe fear that when this is all over, I would pay your grandniece a visit.”

“Meet you downstairs in ten.”

“Don’t bring Vanessa. I don’t want her in on this.”

 

~

 

“It’s been over ninety minutes,” said Brush, reaching for his firearm. “Are you intentionally stalling? Are there agents en route?”

“Cool your jets, son,” replied Mainard. “No one knows you’re here. I had Vanessa disable the cameras before she left for class. Don’t worry; I fed her a line of bull. She is clueless.”

“What’s your analysis,” he asked, gun in hand.

“After a rather intense examination,” replied Mainard, placing the ear under a magnifying glass one last time, “I believe I have reached a conclusion.

“The ear is too small to be that of an adult, but only marginally. It most definitely belongs to a child older than ten, probably between the ages of twelve and sixteen. I am unable to determine gender. Though, we can assume from the feminine earring, it belongs to a female.”

Brush nodded.

“I’m sorry, Brush. I truly am.”

“Postmortem,” he asked, his voice fluctuating as he forced back the tears.

“No. If you look here,” replied Mainard, pointing to the wound, “blood was still flowing when the perpetrator removed the ear.”

“You’re certain?”

“Yes. It’s impossible to say for sure, but I am quite confident the person this ear belongs to is still alive.”

“How can you tell?”

“This injury occurring postmortem can be ruled out by three things: the excessive blood in the box the ear was found in, the bruising of the ear, and the inflammation, however slight, of the wound. Dead bodies rarely bleed, bruise, and never heal.”

“They could have removed it right before they killed her, though. Right? And, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the two?”

“You are referring to antemortem, occurring before death, and perimortem, at the time of death. Unless the kidnappers have medical training, they would not have known the difference.”

“What are you saying?”

“If I were going to kill the girl I abducted, I wouldn’t go to the trouble of restraining her just to remove her ear, in an attempt to confuse the forensic technician as to when it was removed—especially if I was going to kill her moments later.”

“Thank you,” said Brush, holstering his firearm.

“Hope can take us a long way,” replied Mainard.

“It’s so easy to let doubt in.”

“What’s your next move?”

“It’s time Eduardo and I had a little sit-down.”

 

~

 

“You can’t go in there, sir,” hollered the assistant, positioning herself between Brush and Eduardo’s office.

“Get out of my way, lady,” replied Brush, slamming her into the wall. “I will shoot you,” he said, aiming his firearm at her head. “Do not test me.”

“Eduardo, we need to talk,” said Brush, grabbing the secretary by the arm. “You’re coming with me,” he said locking the office door behind them. “Pull the shades.”

“What is the meaning of this,” asked Eduardo. “One call and this entire building is in lockdown,” he said, reaching for his office line. “Your ass is finished.”

With the handset to Eduardo’s ear, Brush fired two rounds into the display screen. “You want to take me down for mass murder, why not add two more to the list?”

“What in the hell is wrong with you,” he asked, staring in shock at his destroyed telephone.

“I’m done playing Carlos’ games.”

“What games? There are no games.”

Brush removed a plastic baggie from his jacket pocket. “He left me a message—my daughter’s ear.”

“My God, Agent Brush. Are you certain it is hers?”

“Read the note.”

“We need to get this analyzed.”

“No, what we need is to descend upon El Diablo like nothing they’ve ever seen. Burn them to the ground.”

“You already tried. How did that work out, again?”

“Not a warehouse—the ranch in Live Oak.”

“What ranch?”

“You know damn well what ranch. Years ago, I infiltrated that place and discovered it was their main point of operation, completely unknown to the U.S. Remember?”

“What makes you so sure the girls are there?”

“Carlos never learned of the infiltration. He believes it is still off-the-grid. That’s where he’s hiding the girls.”

“Carlos does not hide. Others hide from him.”

“After what happened to his beloved warehouse, I doubt he’d be stupid enough to stay in town.”

“He does not fear you. He fears no man.”

“He should. He kidnapped my daughter. There will be hell to pay. I’m going after him, with or without your help.”

Eduardo stared at Brush.

If I reinstate him, he thought, he can lead the strike against the ranch. In the meantime, I will alert Carlos, who will then order his men to execute the strike team, and the girls.

But first, I must funnel Carlos’ money to him using Brush’s security code, thereby framing him for everything.

“I cannot begin to explain how against regulation all of this is,” said Eduardo, “but, given the extenuating circumstances, I believe the bureau’s best option is to reinstate you, Agent Brush.”

Reaching into his desk drawer, Eduardo handed Brush his badge, gun, and keys. “This was your find. It is your daughter’s life on the line. I would be pleased for you to lead the strike.”

“This was too easy,” said Brush, gripping Eduardo’s hand. “I don’t know what it is you’re up to, but I will figure it out.”

“You barricaded yourself in my office, shot my only communication to the outside world, and took my assistant hostage. Did you expect more resistance?”

“Move, lady” said Brush, opening the office door.

“Agent Brush?”

“Yes, Eduardo.”

“Watch your back.”

 

~

 

“We do not know how long we will need her,” mocked Juan. “If we cannot benefit from her death, her capture was useless,” he whispered. “If it does not happen in our time, for our purpose, what leverage does it provide?”

“Who are you talking to,” asked Carlos, entering the medical room through the side door.

“No one,” replied Juan, turning up the radio. “I am merely administering antiseptic, antibiotic, and bandages to a dead girl.”

“Killing the girl does not benefit us at this moment. The delivery of the ear will get his attention. If more is necessary, we need to have it available for removal.”

“I understand, primo. It is just—I am a killer. I am not used to allowing my targets to live. Your display of control is more than I can understand, different than I am accustomed.”

“This may be true, Juan. But, you have run point on many operations, cleaned up more messes than I care to admit. Kidnappings are all about leverage, manipulation, and torture. The threat of death is a great motivational tool for both the girl and her father.”

“I understand dismemberment is to instill fear. That in creating panic, you hasten the return of your money.”

“This is correct,” said Carlos, interrupted by the ringing of his cell. “It is not a difficult operation.

“Is that Manuel,” asked Juan. “He should have checked in by now.”

“It is Victór. He will be expecting an update. Keep your eyes on the girls. He will not be pleased with events as they have transpired.”

“Brush is more unpredictable than we could have imagined,” said Juan, sliding the key into the lock. “But, we still managed to come out on top. You tell Victór I said that.” Removing his firearm from his side, Juan proceeded to enter the room.

“It’s about time,” said Amber. “Where’s Amy?”

“Do you ever shut up,” he asked. “She is dead.”

“No she’s not, and I want to see her.”

“Not after what I have done, you do not.”

“I need food and use of the bathroom. How about a pillow and a blanket? This concrete isn’t getting any softer, you know. A shower would be nice, too.”

“Shut your mouth,” yelled Juan. “You drive me crazy with all your blabbering. If you do not stop, it is going to cost you. I assure you of this.”

“What is the matter, Juan,” asked Carlos. Is she causing you problems?”

“I need food and I have to pee,” interjected Amber. “What’s so difficult to understand?”

Juan shot her an icy glare. “That was a quick call, Carlos. What did he say?”

“Tend to her later,” said Carlos, heading for the door. “We need to talk.”

Locking the door behind them, Juan followed Carlos to his office. “Did you share with him my comments?”

“I did not. He is upset, displeased. He claims I am losing control, that I have caused the family shame.”

“In any other circumstance, he would be right. But, in this case, he is incorrect. You could not have predicted Brush would react the way he did.”

“It does not matter. Victór ordered me to move the girls. He wants us in Mexico by nightfall. He is relieving me of my duties. He is taking over this operation.”

“What are we going to do? Did you not challenge his decision?”

“I did. I convinced him of the risks associated with transporting the girls across the border. With Brush so close behind, it would not be wise to make such a move.”

“We could disappear into Mexico without a trace.”

“Yes, but as long as this operation stays in the United States, it belongs to me. Once we enter into Mexico, it becomes Victór’s.

“I have no interest in stepping down, letting Victór take over. It is bad enough Brush made a fool of me in my own organization, but having myself removed from this operation would be unacceptable.”

“So, the ranch?”

“Yes. Victór is flying in late tonight. We will depart for the ranch once he arrives.”

“How do you propose we handle the girls? I do not think he will appreciate the girls’ mouth.”

“The one is sedated. Keep her that way. As for the Brush girl, feed her and allow her to use the toilet. Hopefully she will sleep. If she becomes rowdy, we will sedate her. I do wish for her to be awake, if possible, but I do not want any trouble. Victór will see that as weakness.”

“Very well,” replied Juan, grabbing a bottle of water and a leftover burrito from the fridge.

Tossing them into her cell, the burrito unraveled, beans and rice scattering everywhere, both landing out of her reach.

Using her feet, Amber gripped the bottle of water. Setting it aside, desperate for food, she hurried to scoot what was left of the burrito to within hands grasp.

“Why are you only feeding me once a day,” she asked, consuming every last grain of rice she could find. “Are you intentionally keeping me weak? Afraid I might pose a challenge if at full strength?”

“You? A challenge,” laughed Juan. “I do not think so. No, we are not feeding you because when this is over, you are going to die. Why spend money on a dead girl?”

Amber remained silent.

“What? Does the cat have your tongue?”

“I need to use the bathroom.”

Having first tied her hands together using a pair of zip ties, Juan proceeded to unlock the handcuffs restraining her to the pipe.

Taking told of her by the arm, he jerked her to her feet, causing his unbuttoned dress shirt to open, revealing for a brief second, his gun. Left side, snapped holster, looks like a forty-five, she noted.

After being shoved into the bathroom stall, she locked the door behind her.

“You have one minute.”

“How do you expect me to go with my hands tied?”

“Shut your mouth and use the toilet.”

“Whatever,” she whispered. Now’s my chance, she thought. This could be my only shot.

As the seconds passed, and with no noise coming from the stall, Juan’s curiosity had peaked.

“Flush the toilet,” he said, banging on the stall door. “I am not your housekeeper. And, wash your hands.”

Amber did not respond.

“Your minute is up. Unlock the door, turn to face the toilet.”

Still no response.

“Do as I say, or I will kick it open and you will regret having not followed my orders.”

Amber pushed the slide, retracting the lock.

“No games, Amber. I am not in the mood.”

As his fingers crept over the edge of the door, and he began pulling it open, she knew it was time to act.

Kicking open the door, she charged him, executing a front thrust kick to his groin, doubling him over. Running to his left side, she nervously unsnapped his holster, tucking his firearm in the front of her pants.

Using her right leg, she finished him off with a knee strike to the face, knocking him to the floor, rendering him unconscious.

Gun in hand, she sprinted down the hall looking for the nearest exit. “I will come back for you, Amy. I promise,” she whispered. “I promise.”

Halfway to the other side of the warehouse, she spotted a window with a door alongside. Racing to the exit, she used her shoulder to gently crack it open. With only two cars in the parking lot, she stayed out of the light until reaching the nearest vehicle.

It was an old, beat-up pickup. A rusted out S10, she could not have cared any less than she did at that moment. She was free. For the first time in nearly a week, she felt real hope.

Pulling the gun from her belt, she closed her eyes and turned her head away. Using the barrel, she shattered the driver’s side window, unlocking the door from the inside.

The guard on patrol heard the noise and radioed for backup as he proceeded toward the truck. “What do you think you’re doing,” he asked, raising his weapon as he closed the distance.

“Stay back,” she shouted, stabilizing her aim by resting her arm on the hood. “That’s far enough. I’ll shoot.”

“You will not. You do not have it in you, little girl.”

“Take one more step and I’ll blow off a toe,” she replied, firing a round into the pavement near his foot.

“You will pay for this,” he said, lowering his weapon to the ground. “Backup is already on the way.”

With two guards emerging from the building, running toward her from the same direction as the other, she tightened her grip on the gun and opened-fire, her eyes closed as tight as her grip.

Firing until the magazine was empty, she threw it on the ground and bolted. It was not long before she realized she was not being followed. Hiding behind a tree, she turned back to see where they were.

“You hit,” asked one guard to the other.

“I dove into the shrubbery. How about you?”

“Damn girl got me in the shin.”

“How does that even happen?”

“I think she had her eyes closed.”

“Alpha-Tango-Three, are you okay?”

“Get me a doctor,” yelled the third guard. “I’ve been hit in the stomach, and my left knee is—I can’t move.”

“Carlos, this is Alpha-Tango-One. Two guards are down. The girl has escaped. Medical attention is required.”

“I only now discovered Juan on the bathroom floor,” replied Carlos. “I will send others after her. She cannot have gotten far. Juan is on his way with the medical kit.”

“She took his gun. We need a doctor. It’s bad.”

“A teenage girl shot you and escaped your custody? This is unbelievable. Victór is due any minute, and this is chaos. I should let you rot where you lay, or finish you myself.”

“The girl in unarmed, heading east. She is following the tree line.”

“Maintain your positions. Do not attempt to retrieve the girl. I am going to handle this myself. And then, I will handle you three, incompetent fools.”

Confident she had bought herself enough time to escape, she took cover behind a dumpster. Catching her breath, she broke down. Trying to find comfort and guidance in instruction Brush had given her, she racked her brain for what to do next.

When forced into a less than desirable situation, opportunities will always arise. Pay close attention to your surroundings. Always be ready to act. It could mean the difference between life and death. Never give in to fear.

She opened her eyes, wiping the tears away. Standing to her feet, she hugged the side of the warehouse, slowly making her way to the east lot. Stopping at the edge of the building, she stepped out just enough to scan the parking lot.

Catching the glimpse of a flame in the distance, she observed as a guard paused to light a cigarette before continuing his rounds. “I almost walked right into that one,” she whispered, retracing her steps to the other lot.

With no sign of the guards she had previously fired on, she slowly moved toward the S10, still hugging the wall.

Avoiding the large warehouse window by ducking behind the truck, she debated about climbing through driver’s side window for fear that opening the rusty door would alert the guards.

Afraid she would cut herself from the shards of glass still protruding from the door, she instead went around to the passenger’s side. Placing her hands against the window, she pressed in and down, hoping to lower the window manually. “Come on,” she whispered, “I only need an inch.”

Slipping her fingers through the tiny gap, she used what little leverage she had to force the window down the rest of the way. Now inside the truck, she scrunched down, her head between her knees, trying to feel her way to the access cover beneath the steering wheel.

“Come on, start,” she said, touching various wires together, wishing like fury the engine would start.

Ecstatic at the thought of escape, and what she had been able to accomplish, she did not let the delay discourage her.

Switching the wire in her left hand with another hanging from the steering column, she tapped them together and twisted. The truck started.

I have to get to the police, she thought, depressing the brake, preparing to shift the truck into reverse.

Backing out of the stall, she reached for the shifter when something flew through the back window, striking her in the head. The thrust of the assault having knocked her on her side, she shook it off and sat back up.

Her focus only on escape, she remained oblivious as a hand reached through the window, latching on to the back of her neck. Slamming her head into the steering wheel, Carlos chuckled. “This one is tough, much like her father.”

“My dad is going to kick your—,” said Amber, before Carlos slammed her head into the steering wheel a second time, knocking her unconscious. “You talk too much. Also, a quality shared with your father.”

Meanwhile, Juan, ordered to stall by Carlos, was attempting to keep Victór on the plane.

“Sir, before you deplane, please allow me to alert security of your presence. Carlos ordered a clean sweep once you arrived. It is merely precautionary.”

“Alert security? Clean sweep? Is there something I should know, Juan?”

“No, sir. As I said, it is merely precautionary.”

“I appreciate my son’s thoroughness, but now is not the time for such precautions. We are at an empty warehouse.

“With the exception of the men on my payroll and the two teenage girls in our custody, the place is vacant. Carlos’ gesture, however appreciated, is misguided. Now, get out of my way,” he said, standing to his feet.

Juan stepped aside, allowing Victór access to the air-stairs. “Very well, sir. The men on the ground will escort you to Carlos.”

Victór offered a nod of approval.

Marching to the rear of the plane, Juan unclipped his radio from his belt. “Carlos, Victór is en route. I could not stall him any longer. Do you have the girl?”

“Amber has been secured. Your failures noted. We will discuss this in further detail later.”

“We will not discuss this later. You are lucky I did not put a bullet in her head when I had the chance. She got one over on me. I covered your ass with Victór. We are even.”

 

~

 

Amber woke confused, weak. She opened her eyes to a dark room, her head throbbing. Finding herself back in the hallway, handcuffed to the water pipe, she sighed.

Her lips parched, she could taste the dried blood on them, smell it on her nose. Judging by how painful it was to breathe, she was sure it was broken. Her heels scratched and bleeding from being dragged across the parking lot, she knew she was in no condition to attempt another escape.

Leaning her head against the concrete wall, unable to hold back the tears any longer, she lost it. In the midst of deep sobbing, she heard a faint noise, a voice.

“Who’s there,” she asked in a barely audible tone.

“Amber, is that you,” asked Amy.

“Yeah, it’s me. How’s your ear?”

“It’s okay. They’re taking real good care of the wound. I’m medicated and everything.”

“How’s the pain?”

“Barely tolerable, but I’m managing. I heard you almost got away.”

“I tried, but they’re too strong, too vicious.”

“I don’t know what you did to whom, but you made someone super mad. I heard them arguing about being knocked out by a girl.”

“I should have never let you—”

“Give you a ride home? It’s okay, Amber.”

“I am so sorry,” she sobbed, “so sorry.”

“Earlier you told me your dad would get us out of this. I am clinging to that hope, trying to be stronger, because that is all we have right now.”

Amber remained silent, attempting to mask her sobbing by steadying her breathing.

Amy knew better.

 

~

 

“So, where are the girls,” asked Victór.

“They are secured in the back,” replied Carlos.

“Juan, clear the room,” ordered Victór. “I need to speak with my son alone.”

“We can speak in my office,” said Carlos, directing him down the corridor. “Follow me.”

“What in the hell is happening? I turn my back for one minute and you compromise El Diablo to the point of no return.”

“You are—”

“Not finished,” interrupted Victór. “This incident with Brush has escalated far beyond what you have been trained to handle. When did you become incompetent?”

Carlos grabbed a beer from the fridge. “You are upset because Brush double-crossed us. What I do not understand is why you are taking it out on me. You provided me with Brush’s information. You put me in contact with Austin Financial. I was handed a faulty operation from the get-go.”

“And, given the circumstances, you believe you have done an acceptable job?”

“We have Brush’s daughter and her friend. He knows it is us. We own his superior. The operation could not be better. Hiccups are expected. You taught me this.”

“Maybe I am losing patience in my old age, but what happened in Dallas is unacceptable.”

“We could not have predicted he would attack a guarded warehouse, much less manage to cause as much damage as he did. It was an unfortunate, but contained incident.”

“You have an answer for everything, Carlos.”

“It is you who taught me to remain calm under pressure, that when situations played to a disadvantage, to manipulate them to our advantage. This is what I am doing. I am letting it play out. We are still in full control.”

“If this is the case, when I phone Eduardo, he should confirm the operation is running smoothly, yes,” asked Victór, removing his phone from his jacket pocket.

Before Carlos could respond, his cell phone rang. “It is Eduardo,” he said. “This must be an update.”

“This better be good news, Eduardo,” said Carlos.

“We need to talk,” he replied

“This is why you called, is it not?”

“The ear gained his attention. It took a little longer than expected, but Brush is definitely in a panic. He came to my office with enough evidence to get a warrant. I reinstated him.”

“You better have a damn good reason for this.”

“He knows about the ranch. I authorized a strike.”

“You did what?”

“His team will be departing by chopper in the morning. This gives me just enough time to transfer your money back to you using his security code. Once I frame him for the transfer, and you kill him, there will be no one for the government to prosecute. We will be in the clear.”

“Very well. Good work, Eduardo. Victór will be pleased with the development, and your ingenuity.”

“Just make sure Brush dies in the gunfight. We cannot afford for him to live. He no doubt possesses the ability to trace the transfer back to me.”

“Who do you think you are talking to? Everyone present will die. Remember your place, Eduardo.”

“Of course, Carlos. I mean no disrespect, only reminding you of the risks associated with this development.”

“I no longer wish for you to be another casualty in this war, but I will not hesitate to shoot you in the head if you do not keep your place.”

“Yes, Carlos. My apologies.”

Carlos disconnected the call.

“It sounds like Eduardo is a liability,” said Victór.

“I am constantly threatening him. It is as if he does not remember who we are, that his position in the government clouds his judgment.”

“You know how I feel about liabilities.”

“Do not worry, Victór. When this is over, so is he.”

“What about this gunfight?”

“You heard?”

“Your speaker is loud.”

“I will lure Brush into the equipment barn. The walls will be lined with C-4 connected to a timed, pressure sensor in the floor, we will not have to worry about shooting him.”

“Timed, pressure sensor?”

The timer will act as a redundancy in the event the sensor is not triggered in time, or he figures it out.”

“How will the sensor be triggered?”

“We will place Amber in a chair directly behind the sensor. When he kneels to attend to her, he will trigger the sensor, initiating a five second countdown.”

“And, if he manages to escape before the timer expires?”

“Highly unlikely, but this detonation will be the first domino in a set that will systematically blow the entire barn. No one will leave alive.”

“Make certain this is executed without err. I do not want him getting away a third time.”

“Third time? I believe you mean second.”

“The first was when he breached our organization. The second was when he invaded the warehouse. There will not be a third.”

“There will not be a third,” agreed Carlos. “He will be framed, murdered, not here to watch his family massacred while they sleep in their beds.”

Juan knocked on the door before entering.

“What is it,” asked Carlos.

“Everything is loaded. We are ready to depart.”

“Including the girls? How did you handle this?”

“Enrique administered a sedative.”

“Very well. Then, let us head out,” said Victór. “We have much work to accomplish before sunrise.”

“I must make a call before we leave,” said Carlos. “I will catch up. It will only be one minute.”

“Hello,” answered the voice on the other end.

“Andrew, I trust you received my package?”

“You think you can break into my house, leave Amber’s ear in a box, and still expect my full cooperation? I am coming for you. And, I am going to kill you.”

“You sound tense. What is the matter? I made my demand perfectly clear, yet you insist on disregarding. Do not misunderstand; I will continue delivering body parts until I see the return of my money.”

“You touch either of those girls again, I swear you will regret it with everything you have.”

“Your threats would carry more weight if you were in a position to be giving them. Unfortunately for you, you are not.”

“Ordering the hit on my mother wasn’t enough? Now, you have to go after my daughter? What a coward.”

“You mother is unfinished business I chose to walk away from many years ago. Do not make me change my mind.

“Now, listen carefully. If you wish to see the girls alive again, you must do exactly as I say. If you disregard, I will ensure Juan inflicts maximum pain. As you are aware, his technique is world renown.”

“You son of a bitch.”

“I wonder what your daughter will think when I tell her that her father possessed the power and ability to meet my demands, to stop her pain, yet refused, once again choosing his career over his family.”

“I am coming for you.”

“I look forward to it.”

Brush snapped his flip phone in half, hurling it against the wall of the parking garage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7

 

Fractured Hope

 

The time was 11:30 p.m. Staring at the pieces of his phone scattered throughout the parking garage, Brush, with no time to waste, quickly made the decision to leave the stolen car where he had left it.

“It was my only option,” he said, speeding away in his government-issued vehicle. “Giving Eduardo the ranch was the only way I was ever going to be reinstated. And, without the resources of the bureau, any strike I led would’ve been me outnumbered and outgunned.

“And like Bishop said, that’s not something I’m likely to live through again,” he continued, touching his hand to his side. “Although, somehow, I’m afraid I’m going to regret this.”

Taking the service road by mistake, he disregarded his error, continuing on in his thoughts. “Carlos is predictably unpredictable. I just hope by planting the seed with Eduardo, he will feel forced to move the girls. Subtle manipulation is key with someone as volatile as Carlos.

“I wish I could finish this at the ranch, but, if the girls aren’t there, getting a lock on Carlos’ plan is the next best option.

“One thing is certain. I sure as hell won’t be leading this strike. I’m sure that’s what Eduardo is expecting, which is one more opportunity to throw them off their guard.”

Brush removed an untraceable cell from his glove compartment. “I’d better make contact while I still can,” he said, dialing his mother.

 

~

 

“Have you spoken with Kelly,” asked Brush.

“What’s going on, Andrew,” replied Katherine.

“It’s a long story,” he said, nervously rubbing his forehead with his left hand, “and I don’t have the time.”

“Surely you didn’t phone me at a quarter-to-midnight to tell me you don’t have the time to tell me something Kelly was supposed to tell me.”

“I called because it’s been a long time.”

“Kelly told your father and me that you were undercover. We didn’t know when to expect to hear from you. Does this mean your mission is over?”

“Hardly,” he whispered.

“Now, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“I can’t divulge such—”

“Here we go again, Andy.”

“To hell with protocol, mom. I don’t care anymore.”

“Okay, then, tell me what’s going on.”

“Mom, I have been undercover inside El Diablo for the past eighteen months. I’m sorry. I wish I could have told you earlier. It’s just—” he paused, “—I couldn’t share it with anyone.”

There was silence on the other end of the line.

“Recently, the—”

“You just couldn’t let that one go, could you,” she interrupted. “You just had to keep picking at it until you ripped the—”

“They have Amber.”

“You mean—” she paused, paralyzed by the sudden fear pulsing through her veins, her mind forcing her to relive the life-threatening assault all those years ago.

“Yes. My cover was blown. Amber and Amy were taken as leverage. I can’t tell you any more than that. It goes deep, Mom. El Diablo’s reach is far.”

“What are you—” she muttered, unable to finish her question. “Those men are—”

“I’ve located the girls. I’m leading a tactical strike in the morning.”

“Your father and I will be praying,” she whispered.

“Thanks. Listen, I have to go. There’s a lot of work to be done to make this strike happen. Any error in the execution will no doubt result in numerous casualties. I—” he paused, choking up at the implication of what his failure would mean.

“Andrew, you believed in me when even your father wouldn’t. You can do this. Retrieve the girls. Bring them home. And for God’s sake, no more half measures.”

“I intend to, but the lines I may have to cross in order to survive are going to call into question my morality, my faith. I must engage the enemy at his level. It’s the only way.”

“Then engage, do what you must, but make certain it’s not in vain. If you go down that road, don’t come back until you’re certain you never have to go down it again.”

“When did you get so wise,” he asked, smiling as he wiped the tears from his eyes.

“I have a son in the FBI. It comes with the territory.”

“Love you, mom.”

“Love you too, Andrew.”

 

~

 

Gaining a few hours of sleep at his house, Brush gathered his remaining tactical gear and weaponry before driving back to the field office.

Making a detour to the break room before heading to his office, he snapped his flip phone in two and tossed it in the garbage, pouring the freshly brewed pot of coffee in after it. “Takes care of that one,” he said, grabbing a clean cell from his bag.

“Hello,” answered Kelly.

“It’s me,” he replied.

“You haven’t made contact in days. I didn’t know if you were alive or dead. What in the hell is a matter with you? You order me to keep quiet and then don’t call?”

“Have you watched the news?”

“I heard about the explosion if that’s what you mean. I know you’re a fugitive.”

“Not anymore. I’ve uncovered enough evidence; Eduardo had no choice but to reinstate me.”

“That’s great. So, have you learned anything about where the girls are being held?”

“I have a solid lead. And, if it doesn’t pan out, it will get me closer to Carlos. The strike team departs momentarily, which is why I called.”

“Do you know how she’s doing?”

“Carlos is one sick bastard. What I’m going to do to him when I find—”

“What do you mean? What has he done?”

“I just hope she can hold on long enough, Kelly.”

“You make it sound like something happened? What happened, dammit?”

“He broke into my house, left a human ear.”

“What,” she asked, her voice cracking.

“The attached note claimed it was Amber’s. I’m not so sure.”

“When did this happen?”

“A few hours ago.”

“What reason do you have to believe it’s not Amber’s?”

“Carlos is too greedy to run the risk. He’s more concerned about his money than anything. When the girls were abducted, the assailants could have just as easily worn masks and left Amy unconscious in the car.”

“Unless she’s the short-term leverage.”

“Exactly.”

“That’s a bold assumption, Andy.”

“Not really. He knows if he kills Amber, he will never see his money again. She is all the leverage he has.”

“So, our only hope lies in that he’s torturing an innocent teenage girl in place of our daughter for revenge against you?”

“Look, I know it’s horrible, but it’s all I have right now. Amy became collateral the moment she was taken. But, if I lose Amber—”

“Amber is just as much collateral as Amy,” she interrupted, “and you know it.”

“Hey, I didn’t compromise my cover, it was blown from the inside. This is not on me. I deeply regret how the cards have been played, but my only hope is that I can retrieve what’s left of them. That is where my hope lies. Nothing else matters.”

“I don’t like when you rationalize acceptable loss.”

“Neither girl is an acceptable loss. But, if my hands are forced, I will, without a doubt, choose Amber. You need to know that.”

“I don’t know how you do it. I’m so torn, confused. I can’t handle this. It’s too much.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Have you found anyone you can trust? Someone to aid in the rescue?”

“At this point, I haven’t even tried. If El Diablo can infiltrate the bureau as they have, there’s no way to know who else may be involved. I’m on my own.”

“Were you injured in the explosion?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“How bad?”

“It’s time for me to brief the team.”

“Call me when you know anything.”

“I will.”

~

 

“Why are you doing that in here,” asked Eduardo, pointing to Brush’s abdomen.

“The sink,” he replied without breaking his concentration.

“I’m confused. I just put a pot of coffee on. Where’s it at?”

“I get that from you,” replied Brush, as he continued redressing his wounds, his eyes stayed on his shoulder. “But, not about your loyalty.”

“Pardon me,” asked Eduardo, taking the stirrer from his cup. “To what are you referring?”

“Of all the things you could be loyal to, your country, your agents, you choose Carlos,” he said, glaring up at Eduardo. “For someone who seems so scattered about in thought and action, you sure know where your loyalty lies.”

“Now is not the time to discuss these matters. You have made it perfectly clear where you stand and what you think of me. If you wish to attempt to recover your daughter, I suggest you move quickly. Time is of the essence, Agent Brush.”

“Dammit, Eduardo. You’ve been exposed. Turn yourself in. End this. Just tell me where my daughter is and this can all be over,” he whispered. “Turn over on Carlos. Testify against him and the bureau can protect you.”

“I would be killed before my arraignment.”

“When this is over, there will be no one left to kill you. You have my word. Assist me in this and I will testify in your favor.”

“Enough. Your accusations are unfounded. Now, update me on the status of the tactical team.”

“The team is ready, chopper is loaded.”

“And, your current medical condition?”

“I’ll be fine,” he replied, securing his holster to his belt.

“Are you certain the tactical gear will not aggravate your injuries? You can sit this one out if you like.”

“Go to hell,” he replied, turning to leave.

“You first,” whispered Eduardo. “And, Brush?”

“What now, Eduardo?”

“Standard protocol is to be followed on this operation. Do you understand?”

“Yes. You know I’m a stickler for protocol. It will be followed to a tee.”

“Very well. Good luck, Agent Brush.”

The dumb bastard thinks I’m going to follow protocol, thought Brush. What a moron.

“There’s one more thing.”

“Yes, Eduardo?”

“My peers and I agreed to pull a few strings.”

“Okay.”

“You now have two teams, two choppers at your disposal. Use them wisely is all I ask.”

“Twice the manpower for a lead I can hardly substantiate,” he replied, maintaining eye contact as he closed the distance between him and Eduardo.

“That is correct,” replied Eduardo, reaching into his jacket pocket for his ringing cell. “I must take this.”

“You look nervous.”

“That is none of your concern,” he replied, turning to leave.

“I will lead these two strike teams through a successful mission, but your ulterior motives will be discovered. Mark my word,” he said, grabbing his duffle as he departed for the chopper.

“I would not be with your men when they raid the warehouse,” blurted Eduardo.

Brush stopped walking.

“Just some advice,” he continued.

Brush turned. “What are you telling me?”

“You narrowly escaped one explosion. You will surely not escape another.”

“The warehouse is set to blow?”

“Make sure you are at the stables. At the back entrance, you will find a key that will unlock the door to a hidden passageway between the warehouse and the plant. There, you will find what you seek.”

Once to the roof, Brush assembled his teams.

“Alpha Team, I’m with you. For now, your orders are to land near the warehouse closest the house.

“Bravo, you will first secure the residence before meeting up with us. Then, you will take the northeast quadrant. There are seven outbuildings. I don’t need to remind everyone here what, and who we’re up against.”

“Let’s roll,” replied Alpha Team Leader Potter.

Staying in the shadows, Eduardo listened in on the conversation while also tapping in to the mobile comm unit.

As the choppers lifted off, Eduardo phoned Carlos.

“The stubborn fool is falling right into my hands,” he whispered. “As soon as the two teams enter the warehouse, it will blow.”

“Did you do as we discussed?”

“Yes. He will be seen leading his men to their death, while he quietly escapes.”

“The access tunnel is rigged to blow. By the time he realizes, it will be too late. There will be no escape.”

“Also, the funds will be transferred to your account via his username and password, the timestamp adjusted by the rat you paid in IT.”

“Excellent. I finally see this whole misstep coming to a close. We paid a steep price by allowing an investigator to stay under as long as Brush did.”

“Our vetting processes must be heightened in the future. He could have taken us down.”

“Víctor will be implementing the changes himself. This will never happen again.”

“The choppers will land in one hour.”

“Not to worry, the operation has already been moved. My men are no longer there.”

“I thought you were keeping a sniper on sight?”

“It is not necessary. Predicting his actions is like stealing from an infant. He is too emotional to not enter the warehouse.

“Besides, you have prepared him to enter the plant. Every building is wired with plastic explosives. He will never make it out alive.”

“The perceived murder-suicide will be a little difficult to explain, but it will appear as if he led his men to their deaths. It is probably better that way.”

“And, if for some reason this parasite manages to crawl his way out, maimed and limbless, we will have our money and he will be hunted,” laughed Carlos. “Either way, it is over. We have won.”

“When will you dispose of the leverage?”

“Once we are certain he is dead.”

 

~

 

“You need to stay seated, Agent Brush. We’re approaching the destination now,” Agent Potter shouted over the deafening noise of the rotor.

“Take it down by the residence,” he replied, pointing to the closest structure in the distance.

“I have my orders to drop you at the warehouse,” shouted the pilot, “and that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Your orders mean nothing,” said Brush, removing his .45 from his holster, pressing the barrel against the pilot’s head. “Both birds will land by the residence or I’ll blow your head off and land this myself. Am I clear?”

“Yes, sir,” replied the pilot. “Preparing to land.”

Strategically positioning the landing of the choppers, Brush had been able to ensure the two teams completely surrounded the warehouse.

As the tactical teams disembarked, Brush followed suit, discreetly separating himself from the pack. Swiftly moving to the far side of a nearby shed, he used the butt of his Colt M4A1 Carbine to break the pad lock, disappearing inside.

Expecting hostile fire and the inclusion of explosives, Alpha lined a small section of the back wall with paper-thin sheets of C-4. Guaranteeing the impact to create a doorway, while also doubling as a distraction, this would allow Bravo to enter from the front, thereby minimizing direct fire.

“Coffer, you’re team in position?”

“Roger that, Keys. Ready when you are.”

“Detonating explosives in five,” ordered Potter, “preparing to enter in four, three, two, one.”

As the charges blew, the teams descending from both directions, Brush crashed through the shed in a golf cart, racing for the horse stables.

He was not more than one hundred yards away when the entire warehouse exploded; Carlos’ plan a success, both tactical teams terminated, the choppers obliterated.

Pushing the cart to its limit, Brush arrived at the stables seconds after the blast, himself nearly engulfed in the raging flames.

“Dammit,” he screamed, slamming the palm of his hand into the steering wheel. Forcing a deep breath, he closed his eyes. “Calm down,” he whispered, rubbing his forehead. “Think this through. Stay focused. There must be something here I can use.”

With his MP5 secured to his side, he removed his Remington 870 from his back and advanced toward the entrance.

Staying low, he mind was stayed on Amber. “Hang in there,” he whispered, as he hastily cleared the stables.

Taking cover at the far end, his eyes were drawn to a key attached to a necklace hanging from a hook next to the light fixture.

Tucking it deep in his pocket, he paused before breaking for the cart. Something’s not right, he thought, speeding toward the plant.

“This place is sealed up tighter than a prison, yet I’ve not drawn any fire. The warehouse exploded, and that was the end of it.”

His hands shaking, his nerves wasted, he secured his weapon before laying a charge of plastic explosives over the three deadbolts. After four failed attempts at detonation, he pulled his .45 from his side, firing a round into each lock. Switching back to his 12-gauge, he cautiously entered the plant.

Noticing a dim light coming from what appeared to be an office located in the far right corner of the massive room, he proceeded with caution. I had a feeling Eduardo was setting me up, he thought. But, what the hell, I’ll take the bait.

Staying in the shadows, he reluctantly, and against his better judgment, inched his way down the corridor. His back to the wall, he holstered his 12-gauge, removing the silenced 9mm from the small of his back.

“Here goes nothing,” he whispered, kicking-in the door.

Taking immediate cover on the other side of the entrance, he waited. After seconds of no gunfire, weapon raised, he entered the room. As expected, it was clear, save for a message handwritten on the wall.

You continue to play games as though I am not serious. It is a real shame what your ignorance has cost you. The girl’s blood is on your head alone.

His mind went numb. Numerous emotions, memories flooded his psyche, none of which he had the time, or ability to process. His weapon slipped from his fingers as he stumbled backward into the desk.

As the overwhelming despair transformed into raging anger, he let out a scream so full of hostility, he could not help but thrust his fist through the wall.

Disregarding the possible attention he was drawing to himself, not to mention the time he was wasting, he grabbed ahold of the desk and threw it against the wall, the office window shattering upon impact with the chair.

Falling against the wall, tears streaming down his face, trying to come to terms with his daughter’s death, his eyes were drawn to a blue wire sticking out of a drawer in the overturned desk.

His curiosity sparked, he dried his eyes on his sleeve before taking a closer look. “Kit gloves, Andrew,” he whispered, opening the drawer.

The inside of the desk was lined with explosives, the wire a part of the bomb. “This is a wireless timer,” he said, turning the loose section of the device around. “Seven seconds.”

Dropping the device, he secured his 9mm and retreated, sprinting toward the main entrance. Counting down in his head, only seconds from exiting the plant, he turned to watch the office detonate. But, instead, the front door blew, effectively blocking his exit, and propelling him fifteen feet backward.

Scrambling to his feet, he watched on as the office exploded. “Eduardo planned this,” he said, picking up his pace, “and I’m without building schematics.”

“What’s behind door number one,” he asked, blasting through the lock with his 12-gauge.

After shooting in half a dozen doors, he found a corridor that appeared to run the entire length of the building. “Can’t get rid of me that easily, you bastards,” he said, sprinting down the hall. “Just need to find a window.”

As he heard the explosives continue to blow, he became more frantic. With only two doors down the corridor, and no way out except back, he used his shoulder to break the first. “Dammit,” he yelled.

Kicking in the second door, he was mortified by what he first saw, but knew it was his only way out.

“Chicken processing plant, my ass, this is a slaughter house.”

Stepping over the piles of dismembered human remains, he quickly examined the two industrial exhaust fans. Using his MP5, he fired five rounds into each fan, first destroying the motors, then weakening each corner.

With the fans too high for him to kick out, and his injuries too severe, he attempted to knock them loose with the butt of his rifle.

He had one corner out and was working on the second, when the room next to him detonated.

“Come on,” he hollered, beating the fans out with his rifle, “just a little more.”

Exhausted and bleeding, with only seconds to spare, he secured his weapon, and stepped back. “God help me,” he whispered, charging toward the fans, his left shoulder and right hand taking the brunt of it.

He was not more than half way out of the room when the floor and inner wall exploded, the impact shifting his momentum, knocking him unconscious, as his limp, enkindled body fell to the ground.

It was the secondary explosion moments later that woke him. “I got to get out of here,” he mumbled, attempting to stand.

Leaning against what was left of the plant, staring at his legs, he quickly realized the extent of his injuries. “My shins are shredded,” he whispered, the agony from the multiple lacerations almost too much to bear. Then, a slight grin developed. “At least they’ve been cauterized.”

Hobbling to the golf cart, he looked on as smoke continued to roll from the warehouse.

What was left of the walls stood about three feet high, nothing more remained. The Alpha chopper had been caught in the explosion, it was a mere heap. The other was still standing, but only the shell. It too rested inside the blast radius.

“It was a damn setup meant to kill everybody. I still don’t understand. This is supposed to be all about the money. If I’m dead—” he paused for a long moment as he sorted through the rubble. “—Eduardo could transfer the funds under my credentials and label me a traitor.

“So, if the explosion was meant to kill me, why the message on the wall,” he asked, shuffling through the debris. “More importantly, though, what other cryptic messages did Carlos leave?

“There it is,” he said, bending at the waist, shining his flashlight on what remained of the detonator. “What, or who, is this,” he asked, walking to the far side of the room.

In a steel chair, still bolted to the floor sat charred human remains. His heart sank. “No, no, no,” he screamed.

Dropping his flashlight, he reached for his knife, quickly removing the restraints holding the body.

Even though the body was too victimized for identification, he could not help but believe it to be one of the girls. It was the only set of remains in restraints.

“So help me, God,” he declared, cradling the remains in his arms. “El Diablo will burn to the ground for what they’ve done.”

Gently laying the body on the ground, he knelt over it, examining for any possible clues. There were none to be found. “Dammit, Carlos,” he screamed, “What do you want from me?”

Struggling to stand, he used the chair to pull himself up. Gazing at the charred, disfigured remains, he determined in his heart not to leave the body there.

“If I can just get the body to Mainard, he may be able to compare dentals against the girls.”

Filled with a sudden overabundance of fury, he took hold of the steel chair, swung it around, and slammed it onto the floor. Ending up more injured than the chair, he dropped to his knees in tears. “You will be avenged. El Diablo will pay.”

Setting the chair upright to use as support a second time, he stood. After regaining his composure, he noticed an unburned envelope lying where he had been kneeling seconds prior.

“That’s strange. Maybe it fell loose from the chair. Everyone knows Carlos has a way of hiding surprises in office furniture.”

As Brush reached for the envelope, he noticed it was thick, full. Upon opening it, he discovered a stack of disturbing images, amateur pictures taken from a cheap camera. They were pictures of his loved ones—his wife, parents, siblings, and their families, all taken from a distance.

On the back of the last picture was a message:

If you are reading this, it would appear you found her body. You are a very foolish man. The choice was yours, as was the power. Her blood rests on your head.

End the suffering. Return what is mine and the rest of your family will remain unharmed. Do not tempt me. Do not challenge me. You know firsthand of what I am capable. – Carlos

 

~

 

“No. I’m not going. Leave me alone. Where’s Amy? No,” she screamed, kicking and flailing her arms.

Juan and Enrique gripped her on either side, carrying her out to the van Manuel had pulled around. Even with her hands and feet cuffed, she resisted, so intent on freeing herself her wrists and ankles were rubbed raw.

Having chained her to the inside of the van, they were ready on Carlos’ command.

“I will have to call you back, Seve. Felipe from Border Patrol is on the other line.”

“But, brother, we do not need to use border patrol. You can bring the girls through under the radar. Use a coyote. It is much better. Zero risk.”

“The route is too complex and we have too much equipment. We emptied the warehouses, cleared our traces, all the weaponry, vehicles, everything.”

“You are bringing all of this to Mexico? Why not leave this in the basement of our escort service building in Dallas?”

“It implicates us. If Brush is still alive after today, he could discover it. He knows about the hookers.”

“Okay, brother, if you say so. Just know, Victór is not going to like that you are risking the border. You are going to give him a heart attack.”

“He will be fine. Now, I have to go. Felipe is calling again. See you in thirteen hours, brother.”

“Border Patrol Agent Felipe Garcia, do you have good news for me?”

“It is good to hear from you, Carlos. For a while there, I thought you had forgotten about me.”

“Ah, Felipe, never. Just very busy. Victór has me going all over the place.”

“This is what I hear. So, you need a clear transfer into Mexico tonight?”

“This is correct.”

“What time?”

“Six o’clock tonight.”

“Oh, this is no good. My guys are off tonight. They just pulled a double and will not be back until tomorrow night.”

“This has to happen tonight. Is there someone you can pay to keep their mouth shut?”

“Yeah, Octavio.”

“Ok, you take care of this. And, once we arrive in Matamoros, I will send Juan to kill him. We can have no loose ends.”

He unclipped the radio from his belt. “Juan, Enrique, Manuel, we leave in one hour. Be ready, there is no time for mistakes.”

 

~

 

“What is the plan,” asked Juan, engaging Carlos in Spanish to prevent Amber from understanding.

“Our guy Felipe is taking care of things at the border. He is paying off some idiot to let us through.”

“Perfect. You are not going to let him live, are you?”

“When we reach Matamoros, I need you to double back and kill both of them.”

“No problem, but I thought Felipe was on our side.”

“Victor desires someone on our payroll to hold the position. Felipe is not on our payroll.”

“When we reach Veterans International Bridge, which lane do I—”

“I can understand everything you’re saying. I speak fluent Spanish, you idiots,” interrupted Amber.

“I have underestimated you in many ways since you have been in my custody,” replied Carlos.

“You mean since you kidnapped me.”

“You are your father’s daughter.”

“Where’s Amy? What’d you do with her?”

“Amy will be fine. She is staying behind to leave your father a message.”

“I don’t believe you. There’s no way you would let her go unless—you killed her. You sick bastard, you killed her,” she screamed, violently shaking her arms, attempting to free herself from the pole welded along the side of the van.

Carlos began laughing. “I have been called a lot worse, little girl.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “This is not about her, it’s about me. You took me because you want my dad. Amy didn’t have anything to do with it. She only gave me a ride because my car broke down. You didn’t have to kill her.”

“Not that I have to explain myself to you, but the plan never included abducting her. She just got in the way.”

“How can you kill people with such nonchalance,” she asked. “You’re a real sicko, you know that?”

“Call me what you will, but your father stole five billion dollars from me. I want it back. If he had cooperated like he was supposed to, Amy would still be alive and you would be at home with your mother.”

“Oh, so now it’s my dad’s fault that you’re a murderous, kidnapping, drug dealing creep?”

Juan removed the .45 from his side holster and chambered a round. Securing her right ankle, he forced the bottom of her foot flush against the floor. Pulling back the hammer, he forced the cold muzzle against her big toe.

“I would love for you to continue running your mouth, so I can blow off each and every one of your toes.”

He slowly ran the muzzle over each toe on both feet. “And, when your toes are all gone, I will move to your fingers.”

He holstered the .45 and slid out an eleven inch, razor sharp commando knife from a sheath attached to his leg. “Except, I will use this instead,” he said, running the blade down her right leg, cutting her just deep enough for a line of blood to emerge from the skin.

“Are you two related or something because you’re equally creepy,” she said, glancing at Juan, then Carlos.

Unable to contain his anger any longer, Juan quickly removed his sidearm and smashed the butt against the base of her skull, knocking her unconscious. “Shut up,” he whispered.

Carlos shook his head. “This operation has been unstable from the beginning. Never have there been so many problems. Kidnappings are child’s play.”

“Never has an undercover agent gotten this far inside the organization,” replied Juan.

“Brush is smooth,” commented Enrique. “I will give him that.”

“I remember the last time we discovered an undercover agent,” said Manuel, “two actually. We followed them to the restaurant and killed everyone inside, remember?”

“And, we blew the place to the sky for good measure,” replied Carlos, smiling. “Good times.”

He reached into his pocket for his phone. “It is Victór. If she wakes up, keep her quiet.”

Juan nodded.

“I spoke with Eduardo, he told me of your plan with the ranch. It sounds solid.”

“It is what the Americans say, foolproof.”

“How far are you from the border?”

“We should arrive in ninety minutes.”

“What is your plan for crossing?”

“After Octavio lets us through, Seve will meet us in Los Pinos with the black hummer. He will destroy the van and we will travel the remaining distance in the hummer.”

 

~

 

While Juan and Enrique unloaded Amber, Carlos phoned Eduardo. “How did the raid go?”

“The teams departed this morning and we never heard from them again. It was supposed to be an eight hour raid. It has been ten. I’m going to wait another two hours and if no communication is made, I will send a team to check it out.”

“Since they have not shown back up, this means the pilots must be dead. If this is so, it also means the explosion destroyed the helicopters. Even if Brush survived, he would have checked in by now, correct?”

“Yes. They are all equipped with communication units. If he was alive, he most definitely would have made contact by now.”

“This is very good news.”

“However, as a measure of caution, I ordered a team to raid the airport warehouse. As we planned, they discovered his prints everywhere. On all the weaponry you left behind, including the knife used to remove the ear.”

“Excellent.”

“For added measure, I took the expended bullet you gave me, coated it in his blood, and placed it in a trash can.”

“Is it enough to frame him?”

“As far as the bureau is concerned, Brush was the mastermind behind the entire operation. Undercover for so long, he cracked, the stress too much to bear. It happens more often than you imagine.

“Once he is declared dead, the hunt for his daughter will end before it even begins. If by some chance he is still kicking, he will be hunted my every major law enforcement entity local, state, and federal.”

“Very well,” sighed Carlos, “news worthy of my ears. What is that status of my money,” he asked, his voice stern.

“Once we raid the ranch, discovering his body and prints all over the place, including the explosives, his framing will be complete.”

“You failed to answer my question.”

“I initiated the transfer two days ago. I accessed his terminal remotely. It is on an automated schedule, set to complete momentarily.

It will appear he did not intend to die at the ranch, as he initiated the transfer to an untraceable account two days prior to his death.”

“This is excellent work, Eduardo.”

Carlos disconnected the line.

 

~

 

Amber woke in a tiny storage shed. Still dizzy from the stiff blow to the head, she sat quietly against the wall opposite the door, this time shackled directly to the structure.

Carlos’ domineering presence unmistakable, she scooted closer to the back wall as he closed the distance.

“Where am I,” she asked nervously, blinking repeatedly as she fell in and out of consciousness.

“You are somewhere your father will never find you,” he replied, his arms extended above his head, resting on the roof of the shed.

“Did—did you—give me sleeping pills,” she mumbled, fading out once again.

“Yes, Enrique crushed the pills, administering them across your gum line.”

“My dad is going to kill—,” she slurred, opening her eyes long enough to glare at him while she spoke.

“This would be a neat trick since he is dead.”

She scooted herself up. “What are you talking about?”

“Your father recently raided a property of mine. Unfortunately for him, there were enough plastic explosives present to engulf anyone within fifty yards.”

“I don’t believe you. My dad isn’t dumb enough to fall for that. He would know if the building was going to blow up before he went inside.”

“The emotional reaction brought on by a kidnapping can cause people to do dumb things.”

“I said I don’t believe you.”

“That is fine. I have proof, pictures in fact.”

He glanced around the shed, examining the lighting. “It is quite dark in here, but I believe you will be able to see enough to understand.”

Removing the pictures from his back pocket, he squatted next to her. “Come, take a closer look.”

Staying on each image for only seconds, he quickly browsed through the photos, showing her all the charred, dismembered agents.

“Do you see this man,” he asked, pointing to the image, “he was so close to the explosion, it melted his entire face. In fact, for all we know, this could be your father.”

He pointed to another. “The explosion tore this man’s leg from his body, lodging it in the abdomen of his partner. They both died.”

Turning her head away, she began sobbing uncontrollably. “You son of a bitch,” she screamed. “You murdered my father.”

Carlos stood before kneeling in front of her.

“You listen to me, little girl,” he said, gripping her face with his hand. “With your father dead, you are of no use to me. This leaves you with two choices: I kill you, or you make yourself useful.”

“Go to hell,” she screamed, spitting in his face.

“You are a feisty little bitch,” he replied, wiping his face. “So, first, I will use you. If you prove to be more trouble than you are worth, I will kill you.”

He gripped her face again, this time with both hands, examining her. “You are beautiful for a young girl. If any of your feistiness carries over to the bedroom, you will generate me significant revenue.

“Many of our customers prefer their women subservient. You do enjoy a mild beating now and then, no?”

“You’re a disgusting freak.”

“And, you are out of options.”

“The FBI is still looking for me. They will find me and take you down.”

“The FBI does not have jurisdiction outside the United States.”

“Wait, what?”

“They will never find you in Mexico because they do not know you are here.”

An overwhelming sense of numbness swept over her, desperation all-encompassing as her heart sank. Her mind raced for any possible sign of comfort, hope. There was none to be found.

As she felt fluid rushing up her throat, she quickly turned her head to the side and vomited. Wiping her mouth on her shoulder, she knew her life was over. Prayer became her only solace.

Being raised in the Bible belt, regular church attendance mattered much, working to instill in her a belief in God, and a memorization of scripture.

She closed her eyes as she attempted to focus on happier times. Realizing opportunity for escape was still a possibility, just significantly more difficult, she began outlining a plan.

Unaware she was being held in the center of El Diablo’s headquarters, a seven hundred acre compound crawling with over four hundred armed guards, and nearly a thousand sentry towers, separated from the world by a twenty foot tall stone wall, she once again shifted her train of thought to survival mode.

Carlos turned to leave. “Someone will be in later with your meal.”

She could hear the tumblers rolling into place as he locked the door behind him. “It sounded like four, maybe five,” she whispered. As he walked away, she heard him answer his phone.

“Carlos, report to the main house,” ordered Victór.

“On my way, sir.”

 

~

 

“Take a seat, Carlos,” Victór ordered, his back to him as he poured two drinks at the bar.

“You have upgraded the den since I last visited.”

“You have been spending too much time away from home. I am ready for this operation to be complete.”

“As am I, Victór,” Carlos said, taking a seat on the square, black leather chair.

Victór turned. “Here,” he said, extending a drink to his son. “We need to discuss a matter.”

“Very well,” he replied, taking the drink from his father. “What is the matter?”

“I do not know how to say this,” Victór said, taking a shot of tequila.

Carlos stared at him quizzically.

“The measure of your success in Australia, your diligence was only a small part of why you succeeded.”

“I am not sure I understand.”

“I sent your sister ahead of you, to ensure smooth completion of the initial transaction.”

Carlos chucked. “How many drinks have you consumed today, padre?”

“The year you were conceived, I was with another woman. She also conceived that same year.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Your mother and I are aging. We thought it time our sons learn the truth, for we are few.”

“Do I know this woman? Did she grow up here?”

“Your mother would not hear of her living with us, so I supported her from a distance. She is the spitting image of you, my son.”

Carlos sat silent.

“Weeks before you made contact with BigDog, your sister infiltrated their ranks, convincing them to use her supplier, you.”

“So, the Australian operation is hers? You are stripping me of my duties?”

“Not at all. She is overseer of all operations, regional manager, if you will. She only wishes all branches run smoothly. She holds no authority in your day-to-day.”

Carlos stared in astonishment. “I see,” he whispered, shooting back the remainder of his drink.

“She is returning home for a celebration. She plans on making Matamoros her headquarters, to live here with her family. I want you to treat her with respect.”

“Of course, Victór.”

“Very well.”

“Good to see you two together,” said Seve, barging through the door in such haste he skipped the three steps leading into the den.

“What is it,” asked Victór.

“The heat is severe. I request permission to transport the girl inside to cool off, at least for the night, maybe for the duration of her stay.”

“Victór, it appears we have our own little angel,” mocked Carlos.

Victór stood. “If Andrew Brush is dead, the girl is no longer leverage. Her capacity must change. As a budding professional, great care must be taken to prepare her for her future duties. It is an operational transition.”

“Yes sir,” replied Seve.

“Allow her a shower, and a nice meal,” continued Victór. “Secure her in one of the back bedrooms, ensure the lock engages. I will order the doctor to perform a physical tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Victór,” replied Seve, turning to climb the staircase he nearly fell down moments earlier.

“Our standards remain high. If the girl does not fit the bill, we will eliminate her. Am I clear?”

Seve continued walking, tossing his hand in the air as acknowledgement.

 

~

 

Cleaned and fed, Amber obeyed as Seve escorted her to a bedroom.

“Lie down,” he ordered, removing two sets of cuffs from his back pocket.

Her back to him, she hesitated, suppressing all fear before climbing onto the bed.

With her hands secured to the bedframe, he slid down to her feet. Holding her left with one hand, he forced the cuff around her ankle with the other.

Maneuvering to her right, he looped the cuffs through the frame before reaching for her right ankle.

As one hand held the cuffs, the other extended toward her leg, Seve clinched his teeth as Amber’s right foot made contact with his nose, the force of the front kick knocking him off the bed.

Lying at the foot of the bed, he raised to his knees, shaking his head as if to shake off the pain. “Carlos warned me about you. He said you were feisty.”

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” she replied, kicking him a second time, this attempt harder, better aimed.

Unprepared for a second assault, he stumbled off balance, falling into the door, his lip broken, bleeding.

“You need to learn more respect, little girl,” he said, wiping his lip with the back of his hand. “I am the one who arranged for you to sleep in this bed. Without me, you would still be baking in that shed.”

“I would rather die of a heat stroke than turn tricks for you freaks,” she screamed.

“I see,” he said, removing a skeleton key from his front pocket, unlocking a small drawer in the nightstand.

“There are two types of women we employ,” he continued, reaching into the drawer, gripping in his hand a brown, leather pouch, “those who fear us and those who do not.

“Those who fear use live comfortable lives of luxury. They earn a significant salary, spending it however they wish. However, those who do not, we continuously pump full of black tar heroin, ensuring their lives remain a waking nightmare.”

“What a beautiful story,” she mocked.

Kneeling across her legs, he successfully secured her right ankle to the frame. Returning to the leather pouch, he unzipped it, resting it atop her stomach.

Her eyes widened as she examined the contents.

“That is right,” he smirked, running his fingers across the needles. “Ten single-use injections,” he said, unsnapping the glass vile, revealing a yellowish brown substance inside.

Inserting a needle into the vile, he carefully extracted 500 mg. Forcible gripping her left forearm, he twisted it, exposing the inside of her elbow. Pressing the needle against the vein, he paused.

“Injecting black tar heroin intravenously is the most dangerous method. It slowly solidifies the veins, causing incalculable issues later on down the road.”

“So, how about not giving it to me, then?”

“Well, as you would rather be dead than work for us, why should it matter? Why do you care?”

Using the needle, he penetrated her vein.

“No, please don’t,” she whimpered.

“Not so tough, now, are you?”

“Please, no,” she begged.

Removing the needle from her arm, he stood.

Returning the contents to the pouch, he locked it back in the nightstand.

“Why did you stop?”

“Do as you are told, and I will never have to introduce this into your system. I do not prefer this method. However, the moment you disobey, I will not hesitate to shoot you up with 500 mg, four times a day. Understand?”

Amber nodded.

“Good. We have lost many beautiful girls to disobedience. I would prefer that not happen to you.”

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Seve unlocked the bedroom door to leave. “Now, get some rest. Tomorrow, Victór determines whether you live or die.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8

 

Darkest Before the Dawn

 

“As far as they’re concerned, I’m dead. I need to keep it that way,” he said, crushing his earpiece underfoot.

Unclipping the radio from his belt, he tossed it into a nearby pile of debris, shattering it with a few rounds from his MP5.

“Looks like I’m almost out of ammo,” he said, gathering up a few undamaged magazines, “and it never hurts to have extras.”

Back at the golf cart, he decided to spend a few minutes attending to his injuries, both past and present.

“Maybe I can find some meds at the residence,” he said, cutting through the yard for a more direct route.

With every bump and twist, his shins screamed in agony, the shooting pain in his abdomen and shoulder nearly sending him over the edge.

As he reached the detached guest garage, he observed a black hummer barreling down the gravel road, heading directly for the gated entrance. “Keep moving,” he whispered. “Please God, keep moving.”

When the vehicle crashed through the gates and continued speeding toward the house, Brush knew his prayer had not been answered, and that it was up to him to lose these guys, whoever they were.

“I don’t know who you are, or what you want, but I’m not going to be here to find out,” he said, taking a shortcut through the overly furnished patio.

Out of the line of sight, he continued driving until reaching the wooded perimeter. Continuing past the forest, he parked the cart in the adjoining field, behind a hay bale.

Well outside the range of his scope, he could only surmise what the men were there to accomplish.

“Three men, armed, operating as a unit. I’m thinking a personal hit squad sent to ensure the explosives did the job, that the target was successfully terminated.”

He repositioned to the other side of the hay bale.

“How in the hell do they plan on confirming the kill? The bodies are charred beyond recognition, no way they can positively identify anyone.”

Brush took notice as the men thoroughly cleared each building, beginning with the residence, ending with the farthest outpost.

“I’m dead, leave already,” he whispered, observing as they stood over the corpses, mumbling amongst themselves.

“The target must be among the dead,” said the leader of the unit. “I do not see why we should stay any longer. We are only wasting our time.”

“Víctor insisted we confirm the kill. He will not accept anything less. You know this to be true,” replied another.

“There is no evidence to suggest he was not engulfed in the explosion,” said the third. “Perhaps, we should have the bodies examined to put Víctor at ease.”

“We will clear the buildings once more. Pay close attention to anything out of place. If he made it out alive, there will be a trace,” ordered the leader. “Find it.”

 

~

 

“These bastards are never going to leave,” he said, watching as they began clearing the buildings a second time. “If they’re not coming to me, I suppose I better take it to them.”

Removing the remaining two sheets of plastic explosives from his gear, he secured one to the grill of the cart, the other to the backrest. Cutting a lengthy strand of twine from the hay bale, he positioned the cart, killing the engine before tying the accelerator to the floor.

“Now, to draw them out,” he said, firing several rounds into the air.

With the men successfully drawn outside, he started the engine, watching as the cart sped toward their location.

As the men riddled it with round after round, not positive the excessive firing would detonate the explosives, Brush took aim at the gas tank.

With the gas tank catching fire, the explosives detonated, hurling all three men into the air. As soon as the smoke dissipated, Brush quickly determined one to be incapacitated, one injured, the other unharmed.

The injured man stood guard, while the other attended to the incapacitated one. “Leave him, we must take cover,” he ordered. “This target is loco.”

“Help me drag him along. I do not want him exposed. He is my brother.”

“Fine, but hurry.”

Taking advantage of the downtime, Brush advanced eighty meters, putting him in close enough proximity to utilize his scope. “Time to end this,” he said, as one man’s head centered in the crosshairs.

Before the first body dropped, Brush fired two more rounds into the second man’s chest, a final round piercing the abdomen of the third. It was over.

“I better get out of here before anyone else shows up,” he said, stumbling through the woods.

By the time he made it to the hummer, his shins were numb, the pain intermittent.

“These should be hidden for now,” he said, removing the rifles and tactical gear from his person, concealing them in the trunk.

“Bishop would kill me right about now,” he mumbled, as he climbed into the driver’s seat. “There must be something here I can use,” he whispered, riffling through the glove compartment.

With not so much as an ibuprofen in the vehicle, he instead searched for the keys, finding them dangling from the ignition.

Traversing the broken gates and shattered brick, he peered through the rearview mirror, paying silent respect to the fallen agents. As he kept focused on the warehouse, his eyes were drawn to a flowering plant in the distance. Where have I seen you before, he thought.

Shifting the vehicle into park, he recalled a case he had worked with the BAU some time ago.

A series of ritualistic murders had been plaguing a Native American Reservation. Unable to make sense of the killings, the Chief had petitioned the BAU for assistance.

After all was said and done, Lone Eagle, the lead investigator, approached Brush. “When you cannot trust man, do not fear. The Great Spirit is watching over you, Mother Nature given for your benefit.”

“I have a great respect for nature, but what flower is going to heal a gunshot wound?”

Lone Eagle knelt down, picking up a white flower. “I hold in my hands the white yarrow. Use it to treat open wounds. It not only purifies, it also relieves pain, reduces fever, and curbs bleeding.”

Brush stood silent.

Lone Eagle smiled. “There is more to the earth than you give credit,” he said, tucking the plant into Brush’s shirt pocket. “Safe travels, my friend.”

 

~

 

“Yarrow,” he whispered, backing up to the nearest cluster. “Relief,” he said, using his knife to uproot several smaller branches.

Staying in position on the ground, his .45 readily available in the event a second hit squad arrived, Brush carefully sliced through what remained of his jeans, fully exposing his shins.

Chopping the yarrow into tiny pieces, he then crammed a handful into his mouth. After chewing it to a mush, he spit it out in his hand, setting it aside.

Ripping two strips from his shirt, he coated his wounds with the yarrow, tightly securing the strips to his legs. “Thank you, Lone Eagle,” he whispered, crawling up into the hummer.

“I can’t leave without her,” he said, decelerating as he approached the still smoldering warehouse.

Shoving the pictures into his pocket, he covered the remains with a first aid blanket before placing them in the trunk. “I have to know if it’s her,” he said, lowering the hatch.

After being on the road for over seventy minutes, he pulled off the highway, coasting in to the lot of the packed, local Gas & Eat convenience store just outside Austin.

Spotting an empty parking stall near the back of the establishment, he seized the opportunity to hide behind the commotion.

“I better check my stomach,” he said, carefully lifting his shirt to reveal an infected, puss filled wound.

“Save for a few loose stitches, and all things considered, it’s nothing a little yarrow can’t handle.”

How do I want to play this, he thought, stuffing the chopped yarrow into his jean pockets. I’ll leave all but the 9mm, and gas up afterward, in case I need to make a quick exit. Tucking the .45 under his seat, he exited the hummer, proceeding into the station.

“What can I do for you, sir,” asked the associate behind the counter.

“Forty on pump—” Brush paused. “Actually, I’m not parked at a pump, sorry.”

“No worries, sir. You can still pay now, just don’t forget to call me from the pump. Is that the card you want to use for your purchase?”

“That’s acceptable,” he replied, cringing as his shoulder exploded in pain.

“You doing alright, sir?”

“I’ll be fine, but I need to pay with cash,” he said, sliding his card into his back pocket. “Here’s two twenty’s,” he continued, his hand shaking as extending his arm shot waves of mind numbing pain through his chest.

“You don’t look so good,” replied the cashier.

“Do you have a private restroom,” he asked, cradling his side with his other arm. He leaned onto the counter as his legs began failing, his balance fading.

“We have a handicap one in the back.”

“I need the key.”

“No problem, sir. Are you traveling with a disabled individual? I ask because unfortunately, it is reserved for handicap only.”

“Give me the key, son,” he said, the previously diminished authority now present in his demeanor.

“Sir, the public restrooms are off to your left, right next to the coffee. Feel free to use those.”

“Damn it, kid. If you don’t give me the key—”

“You’re going to do what,” interjected the biker standing in line behind him.

“This is none of your concern,” replied Brush, maintaining his position at the counter. “Walk away.”

“I don’t know who you think you are, mister, but around these parts, you threaten a young boy like you just did, you get your ass kicked.”

Brush slowly turned, using the counter to maintain his balance. “You don’t want to do this.”

“Do I ever,” replied the biker, pulling a nightstick from his belt. “Your move, pretty boy.”

“For God’s sake, I just need to use the handicap restroom. What is your problem?”

“You ain’t handicap. The boy said no. The answer’s no. What about that don’t you understand?”

Inconspicuously sliding his hand to the small of his back, Brush gripped his silenced 9mm. “It didn’t have to be this way,” he said, removing it from its holster.

Firing a round into the biker’s foot, Brush proceeded to fire an additional two into the coolers, shattering the glass.

While everyone dropped to the ground, he limped to the medical display. Filling his pockets with antibiotic ointment, ibuprofen tablets, medical tape, and gauze, he ordered the cashier to activate pump one.

Taking the biker at gunpoint, Brush instructed him to fill two gas cans before guiding him back into the store.

Convinced no one could immediately identify his vehicle, he quickly loaded the gas cans into the back and sped off. “Time to dump this hummer,” he said, his eyes darting side to side, searching for the ideal setup, “and fast.”

 

~

 

“It’s going to cost you.”

“How much?”

“This ain’t no chop-shop. I run a clean salvage yard. You want that black box to disappear, I want nine hundred dollars.”

Gripping him by the nape of the neck, Brush rested the barrel of his 9mm in the man’s ear. “How about you do it for free, and throw in that old S10 sitting over there?”

“Yes, sir, absolutely, sir. Just pull it around here and you can park it in back.”

“No problem,” replied Brush, waiting for the man to turn his back before slamming the butt of his pistol into the base of his skull. “No problem at all.”

 

~

 

Thirty minutes outside Dallas, Brush cold-dialed Mainard’s direct line. He disconnected upon Vanessa’s answering.

“These just aren’t cutting it,” he said, popping an additional four thousand milligrams of ibuprofen.

Scrubbing out the wounds had aggravated them, seemingly increasing his pain tenfold. Luckily for him, the owner of the salvage yard kept isopropyl alcohol and peroxide in the restroom cabinet.

Dousing the gauze with the prepared yarrow, he redressed the makeshift bandages on his shins, while dressing his shoulder and abdomen for the first time since leaving the bureau.

“He should be back from his break now,” he said, redialing Mainard’s line.

“FBI Crime Lab, this is Mainard.”

“Meet me across the street in twenty.”

“Who is this?”

“I have more for you to examine.”

“Does it belong with the appendage?”

“Too difficult to determine.”

“I’ll be there. What are you driving?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll find you.”

Brush disconnected the line.

 

~

 

The closer he made it to Dallas, the more severe the weather became. A simple breeze exchanged for damaging winds, clear skies for dark rain clouds. It was as if the storms moving through the region were stayed on the city.

Leaning up against the grill of his truck, Brush waited, the mist accumulating on his shoulders, the remnants of his shirt drenched.

“You look like hell,” said Mainard, spotting him approaching from the rear.

“You don’t look too bad yourself,” replied Brush, entering through the passenger door.

“You said you had more evidence?”

“It’s already in the bed of your truck.”

“How in the hell did you—never mind.”

“I was hoping you could run the dentals. See if they match either girl.”

“Dear God, well, let me take a look,” replied Mainard. “Here, hand me that flashlight,” he continued, pointing to the glove compartment.

“I trust you haven’t shared this with anyone?”

“Not a soul. Well, I mean, Vanessa knows, but she’s my lab assistant. She’s trustworthy.”

“So, explain to me why there’s four plainclothes agents advancing toward your truck?”

Brush adjusted the rearview mirror. “And, while you’re at it, the six-man tactical team approaching from the rear doesn’t make much sense either, if what you’re telling me is the truth,” he continued, removing the 9mm from the small of his back.

“It wasn’t me, I swear. Brush, you have to believe me. I would never. It must have been Vanessa. What can I do to help?

“You can tell me you brought your firearm.”

“I didn’t, sorry.”

“Dammit,” he whispered, releasing the magazine to count the remaining rounds.

“How many?”

“Six, with more in my truck”

“How can I help you get back to it?”

Brush scooted down in his seat. On my signal, shift into reverse and floor it until I say otherwise.”

“Just tell me—”

“Now,” he screamed.

As the truck plowed toward them, the tactical team had no choice but to scatter, diving onto various vehicles for cover.

“What now,” hollered Mainard.

“I need you to drive directly toward the agents,” he said, preparing to exit the vehicle. “That’s my window.”

Mainard sat silent.

“You’ll be fine. Tell them I threatened you at gunpoint, swore to murder your whole family. They won’t think twice about releasing you. Trust me.”

“How do I contact you with the results?”

“I left my number on the body. Find it.”

“Good luck, Agent Brush.”

“Thank you,” he replied, disappearing into the darkness of the unlit parking lot.

 

~

 

Stepping out of the shower, he flipped on the television before attempting to redress his wounds. Narrowly escaping apprehension by his fellow agents, he chose to take temporary refuge in a fleabag motel across town.

Spreading his various medical supplies across the bed, he took a moment to browse the channels, paying particular attention to the local news sources.

What he saw terrified him. His face splattered across the screen, the caption titling him a traitor, a monster. Headshots of Amber and Amy appeared beneath, followed by images of the warehouse and ranch.

“This just in,” spoke the newscaster. “The Federal Bureau of Investigation held a press conference just moments ago regarding one of their very own.

“Apparently, an agent with the Dallas Field Office was working undercover in a criminal organization when he snapped, kidnapping his own daughter and her friend, while they were traveling County Road 17.

“His initial defense implicated the criminal organization we mentioned earlier, but upon closer investigation, the FBI has determined Agent Andrew Brush to be the man behind all of the destruction that has happened today.

“Over a dozen agents have lost their lives, not to mention multiple civilian injuries resulting from his attempted cover-up and subsequent escape.

“If you have any information, or if you have spotted this violent criminal, please contact the FBI hotline at—.”

Brush muted the television.

“What in the hell,” he said, using the wall for support as he lowered himself into the desk chair. “I’m not sure how much longer I can hold out,” he continued, wincing as the pain in his abdomen intensified.

“I know the bastard at the front desk could identify me. I just don’t know what I should do about it,” he said, resting his head in his hand.

Is it even worth fighting anymore, he thought. And, even if I do make it out of here, do I have the resources to stay under the radar long enough to see this thing through?

“I’m not in any condition to fight my way out of anything,” he whispered, as he dressed. “But, I can’t go around maiming and killing civilians. Then, I’m no better than Carlos.”

With the majority of his weaponry still concealed in the bed of the stolen truck, he gathered what he had in the room. “What am I even accomplishing,” he asked, securing his vest to his torso. “With the body I found, and now the news, it’s obvious Carlos is playing out his endgame. I can’t even prove Amber’s still alive,” he continued, placing the 9mm against his stomach, under his vest.

Dropping his bag outside the room door, he quietly advanced toward the hotel lobby. If I’m forced to flash anything, it will be the .45 first, he thought, the 9mm if I’m forced to fire.

The door chime jingled as he entered the lobby. So much for the element of surprise, he thought, the front desk attendant, and two patrons turning their attention from the television.

“Good evening,” he mumbled, maintaining his position at the front door, masking the sound of the deadbolt shifting into place behind him. “Anything good on,” he asked, making his way to the coffee maker, his back to the three.

“Just about to catch the news,” replied the man on the couch. “Unless you know of something be—”

The man paused.

Brush’s heart rate accelerated. He knew it was time. If he was to act, it was now.

A freshly poured cup of coffee in hand, he turned to face the patrons. “The news sounds good to me,” he said, his lips to the cup.

“What,” he asked, as the woman on the couch focused intently on his face before returning her attention to the screen.

“I’m calling the police,” said the front desk attendant, reaching for the handset.

“I think not,” replied Brush, removing his .45 from its holster, firing two rounds into the cradle.

“It’s him,” screamed the woman, “the murderer from the news. He killed his own daughter.”

“You stay away from us, mister,” ordered the woman’s husband. “We don’t want no trouble.”

“I didn’t either, but then my daughter was kidnapped, most likely murdered. Who the hell knows? I can’t prove otherwise.

“Then, when I tried to do the right thing and rescue her, the damn FBI disavowed me, the cartel framed me, and well, here we are. So, pardon me if I don’t give a damn about what you want.”

“There’s a man in the hotel with a gun,” whispered the woman, “he’s the man from the news, Andrew Brush.”

“Who the hell is she talking to,” he asked, racing toward the woman. “Give me that,” he ordered, reaching for her cellphone. “Don’t make me hurt you,” he said, firing a round into the floor near her foot.

“I’ve called the cops, it’s over,” cried the woman, falling to the ground as Brush jerked her phone out of her hand.

While Brush was busy with the woman, her husband and the attendant rushed him, knocked the gun from his hand, and thrust him into the wall.

“Get the gun,” hollered the attendant, “and I’ll call the police, let them know we got him.”

“He don’t look so good,” said the woman to her husband. “He looks sick.”

“Sick bastard deserves to die right here,” replied her husband, standing over him with the gun aimed at his head.

About that time, Brush’s cellphone began vibrating. Reaching into his pocket, he slid his phone out and onto the floor.

“What is he doing,” asked the woman. “Stop him,” she whispered to her husband.

“It doesn’t matter what he does,” interjected the attendant. “The police are on their way. They asked us to watch him until they arrive. It shouldn’t be longer than five, six minutes.”

“Yes,” he muttered, placing the call on speakerphone, “Brush here.”

“I ran the dentals against the two girls.”

Brush slammed his head against the floor. “And,” he replied, his eyes clouded with tears.

“It’s a positive match for Amy Matthews.”

“Are you sure?”

“Your daughter is still out there, Brush. And, if these remains are any indication, she doesn’t have much time.”

Brush disconnected the call.

“I thought your daughter was dead,” asked the man.

“As did I,” he replied, rolling onto his right side.

“The cops will be here any second. So, don’t try to pull a fast one, mister. I will shoot.”

His back to the man, Brush reached underneath his vest for his 9mm. “How long before the cops are here?”

“Probably two minutes.”

“Well, then, this is going to hurt.”

Gripping his firearm in his right hand, he concealed the barrel underneath his left bicep, firing two rounds into the man’s leg.

As the man screamed in anguish, Brush rose to his knees, firing a round into the woman’s shoulder. The weapon jammed, he secured his .45, immobilizing the attendant with one round to the foot.

Hearing the sirens closing in, he disappeared out the back door, leaving his belongings outside his hotel room, the stolen truck in the parking lot.

 

~

 

Amber woke restrained to the bed, her cuffs secured to different spindles than when she had fallen asleep the night before.

“This is a special kind of hell,” she whispered, attempting to stretch her arms the best she could, her wrists bloodied from her constant resistance.

“Good morning, sunshine,” said Carlos, startling her. Reclining in a chair next to her bed, his feet resting on the edge of the mattress, he sat with a smile on his face.

“Who forgot to piss in your cheerios,” she asked, pulling her ankle restraints taut in an attempt to sit up.

“Ah, life is good, little girl. You are here, your father is dead, my sister is coming home, I am home—”

“You still don’t have your money,” she interrupted.

“Why must you do this?”

“What?”

“You intentionally press my buttons. Why?”

“I am not having this conversation with you.”

“You will tell me, now.”

“Maybe, it’s because I’m being held against my will by the man who murdered my father. Or perhaps, because that same man smuggled me across the U.S. border into a country of which I am in illegally.”

“I—”

“What else? Oh, yes, you also murdered my best friend, which I’m beginning to think was a good thing for her because my only two options are to die like her, or become your newest hooker.”

Carlos remained silent.

“Why are you in my room, anyway? What do you want?”

“The doctor visited you this morning, performed a physical. You are cleared as a candidate. Welcome to El Diablo.”

“There was no doctor in here last night.”

“There was, we drugged you. Point is, not only are you a healthy young lady, but you are also a virgin.”

“You don’t say.”

“Dammit, girl. Quit being such a smartass.” Lunging forward, he gripped her by the throat. “This pretty little mouth of yours is going to get you killed if you don’t watch it.”

She stared at him, unable to respond because of his tight grasp. “Can’t think of something cute to say, now can you? That pretty little mouth of yours unable to speak? How nice,” he said, thrusting her head against the wall as he released her.

“If you’re going to get your face that close to mine, brush your teeth first,” she replied, catching her breath as she spoke.

Enraged, he struck her, breaking her lip, and cutting her cheek with his ring.

She cried.

“You will never again speak to me as you just have. Am I clear?”

She whimpered.

He stood to leave. “Very well,” he said, slamming the door shut behind him.

He met Juan in the hallway.

“Carlos. How is the girl?”

“Juan, I need you to coordinate with Seve, tonight. I am waiting for confirmation from a client. Once I receive the go, we will need to expedite the girl’s makeover.”

“Yes, of course. But, why the rush?”

“The girl is a virgin.”

“I see. Top quality product for top dollar.”

Carlos nodded.

“Particular tastes with this client?”

“Very.”

“No problem. I will get the other girls on her, immediately.”

 

~

 

“What is this place,” asked Amber, gazing in amazement at the magnitude of the facility.

“This is where we live,” replied Esmeralda, accompanying her to their living quarters.

“We go to the salon first,” said Lupe, guiding her beyond her dorm to the business end of the center.

“This place is beautiful.”

“First, Nina will attend to your lip. Next, we will take you to the shopping center. There, you will be fitted for three outfits,” said Lupe.

“After which, you will receive your makeover before being delivered to your first client,” said Esmeralda.

The nurse directed Amber to sit on the hospital bed while she examined her facial lacerations. Walking out with a topical antibiotic and a package of tiny bandages, Amber proceeded to the next location.

“How many girls are housed here,” she asked, reclining in the leather chair while the nail technicians began her manicure and pedicure.

The girls glanced at one another before answering. “One hundred three,” Esmeralda replied.

“You make four,” said a smiling Lupe.

“This place reminds me of smaller shopping malls back home,” said Amber. “Commercialized, yet accommodating.”

The girls offered superficial smiles.

Resting her head back, she closed her eyes and tried to relax. “I can’t do this,” she screamed, suddenly overcome by her circumstances.

Kicking her feet free from the hands of the technician, she bolted from the salon, only stopping when met with locked, glass doors.

Desperate to find another way out, but finding none, she instead grabbed a potted plant, propelling it as hard as she could, shattering one side of the double doors.

Careful to step around the glass shards, she was not even off the front porch when a guard ran from behind, dragging her back into the facility.

 

 

 

Screaming and flailing, she almost proved too difficult for him to handle. Radioing for backup, they successfully restrained her, dragging her by her handcuffs, on a brick sidewalk, the quarter mile to the main residence.

Administering an injection of pentobarbital, Carlos’ sedative of choice, he ordered the guards to deliver her to the salon for the completion of her preparations.

She woke in her dorm. “What happened,” she asked, leaning up to rest on her elbows.

“You tried to escape,” whispered Esmeralda, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Do you not remember?”

Amber shook her head.

“Carlos must have sedated you.”

She glanced down at her knees. “I’m bleeding.”

“The guards enjoy dragging us around the compound by our restraints. We often deal with scraped knees. You will be fine.”

Lupe opened her closet door. “Here,” she said, handing Amber three outfits. “We chose these for you. Please, try them on. You do not have much time.”

“She needs to eat first,” replied Esmeralda, glaring at Lupe. “We must cover these scrapes also.”

“How much time do I have,” asked Amber.

“Two hours.”

“Okay. Then, let’s hurry. Tonight, I escape.”

 

~

 

Like clockwork, Carlos, accompanied by Seve, arrived to escort Amber to her first rendezvous.

Observing them hurriedly climbing the staircase to the second floor, she turned to run.

Esmeralda stopped her. “Please, do not do this,” she whispered, gripping Amber’s hands. “Just do as they say.”

“I can’t,” she replied, tears forming in her eyes.

Esmeralda’s gaze widened. “You must,” she said, standing in terror as Carlos came up behind Amber.

“Will we encounter any resistance, tonight?”

Amber stood silent.

“Your father is dead. No one cares to even look for you, anymore. I suggest you learn a greater respect for this place. It is your new home. I am your new father.”

“You’re disgusting,” she replied, attempting to mask her distress.

“Now, turn,” he ordered. “You look magnificent.”

Her low-cut, ruby red cocktail dress sparkled in the light as she slowly turned. Her smooth brown hair cascaded onto her shoulders, partially covering the pearl necklace, completing the scene.

“I believe I will charge him double.”

“Carlos, there is a call for you,” said Seve.

“Tell them I will call them back later. I am in the middle of a transport.”

“It’s Mr. Roman,” whispered Seve, “the client.”

“I know who Mr. Roman is,” he replied, snatching the phone from Seve.

“Mr. Roman, this is Carlos. What seems to be the matter?”

“My partner is unable to make the meeting in Matamoros. We will have to reschedule.”

“This is unfortunate. You understand your payment is non-refundable?”

“Well, I will be close by in Dallas. Is it possible for you to bring the girl to me, here? I understand the heightened risks. I am willing to pay extra.”

“While I do not appreciate the last minute notice, I believe I can accommodate your desires. There will be a significant upcharge.”

“Just tell me who to give my card to.”

“You know the location. Call the number, ask for Abelardo. He will provide you with the updated figure.”

“You expect us to transport her across the border without papers,” asked Manuel, waiting until after Carlos disconnected the call.

“She has papers.”

“Where?”

“Here,” replied Juan, handing them to Manuel through the interior van door.

“Perfect,” said Manuel. “We are nearly to the checkpoint.”

Manuel dropped them at the back entrance of the five-star establishment previously arranged by the client.

“Wow,” whispered Amber.

Carlos snickered. “Nice, huh?”

Before she could respond, she was being escorted into the hotel by two men dressed in tuxedos. As they traversed the lobby, she caught her eyes darting from one magnificent piece of art to another, each representative of a different civilization.

As they continued on, she found herself admiring the level of intricacy found in the chandeliers, anything to keep her mind off the upcoming meeting.

Juan discreetly sat her down at the table. “You will not move,” he said, gripping her arm.

“You’re hurting me,” she replied.

“I will do much worse if you try anything.”

“Whatever,” she said, twisting her arm free of his grasp. “Where’s he at, anyway?”

“He will show. In the meantime, Carlos and I will be watching your every move. Try something stupid, I will not hesitate,” he said, briefly opening his suit jacket to reveal his firearm.

“You are very beautiful,” said Mr. Roman, startling her as he entered from the front.

“You’re late,” she replied. “Seventeen minutes.”

“Sorry. It’s a busy time at work.”

Amber offered a disapproving expression.

“Is it ok? Can we still do this,” he whispered.

She nodded.

“Good. So, let me flag down a server.”

“Yes, sir,” replied the server. “Would you like to start with a drink?”

While he was busy ordering wine, she quickly glanced over to Juan. He briefly smiled before signaling for her to turn around.

“Ma’am,” said the server. “What can I get you?”

“My water is fine,” she replied, not making eye contact, her focus on locating Carlos in the crowd.

“Miss, do I know you?”

“I don’t think—”

She stared in shock.

“What is your name, sir,” asked Roman.

“My name is Enrique.”

“Well, thank you, Enrique.”

“So, tell me a little bit about yourself, Mr. Roman,” said Amber, watching as Enrique disappeared into the kitchen.

“Well, there’s not much to say. I travel a lot, spending the majority of my time here in Dallas.”

“Where are you from,” she asked, nervously fiddling with her silverware.

“Up north. Way up north.”

She nodded.

“What type of business?”

“No business talk,” he replied guardedly.

“Well, okay,” she chuckled.

“Ah, our meals,” he said, removing his arms from the table.

“For the beautiful lady, we have a calamari salad, with a five-ounce, ginger glazed beef tenderloin,” said Enrique.

“For the gentleman,” he continued, “a whole leaf house salad, with medium rare, fourteen-ounce ribeye.”

~

 

Roman glanced at his wrist watch. “Time for dessert,” he asked, reaching for her hand.

“I—”

“It’s okay. Let’s go upstairs. Now.”

“Ok,” she whimpered, offering a nervous smile.

“You’re flushed,” he said, escorting her to the elevator. “Are you feeling well,” he asked, rubbing the back of his hand on her cheek.

Once inside the elevator, he let loose. Gripping her by the throat, he thrust her into the back wall. “You’re so hot,” he said, feeling her up. “I can’t wait to—”

Struggling to hold back the tears, she somehow mustered the strength, allowing him to continue.

Forcibly throwing her onto the bed, he straddled her. “How do I take this thing off,” he asked, rubbing down her back for the zipper. “It must be—”

Before he could finish his sentence, she executed a knee strike to his tailbone, attempting to throw him off balance.

“Carlos warned me about you,” he said, raising his hand to strike her. “And, they’ll be none of that,” he continued, striking her, re-opening her wounds from earlier.

Still straddling her, he clinched onto her dress, and began tearing it from her body.

“Enough,” she screamed, shrimping free of his grasp.

“What are you doing, baby? Carlos assured me you like it rough.”

“I’ll show you rough,” she replied, tossing the bottle of wine at his head, racing for the door.

Before she could unlock the deadbolt, he grabbed her by the throat and squeezed. “Not at chance, bitch.”

Leaning in with his elbows, he pinned her to the door. “You’re my new favorite,” he whispered.

Reaching behind, she took hold of his groin and squeezed, refusing to let up until he was on the floor.

“What the hell’s a matter with you,” he muttered, his voice a whisper. “I thought this was your job.”

“Never,” she replied, applying significant pressure one last time before bolting for the door. “I’m in Dallas. If I can just make it outside, it will finally be over,” she said, racing toward the lighted emergency exit sign.

“They’re watching the lobby,” she said, descending the staircase two at a time. “I bet the parking garage is empty, though.”

Swiftly opening the door, she barreled through, only to be abruptly knocked to the ground. Still conscious, she shook her head, sitting up to see what she hit.

“It appears I will get my revenge after all,” said Juan, standing over her with his weapon drawn.

Scrambling to her feet, he waited until she was on her hands and knees before executing a front snap kick to her face. Thrusting her onto her back, her head’s impact with the concrete floor knocked her unconscious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9

 

A Cord of Three Strands

 

“It appears she is making an unexpected stop,” said Juan. “It is a Roman Catholic parish.”

“Is that so uncommon given the circumstances,” replied Eduardo, placing the call on speakerphone as he finished tidying up his desk.

“My men would not have phoned if it was not a credible deviation. Apparently, she was contacted on a cellular device unknown to them.”

“Were you able to intercept the communication?”

“Negative. It is an untraceable line.”

Eduardo dropped his paperwork and picked up the handset. “Do you think she is communicating with Brush?”

“My men will know soon enough. How do you want them to proceed?”

“You have never willingly taken orders from anyone but Carlos. Why start now?”

“Carlos made it very clear that stateside, this operation is yours. How do you want to proceed?”

“Once your men verify it is him, phone it in to the local sheriff.”

“I do not understand. Let us take him out at the parish. It is dark, secluded. It provides the perfect cover.”

“The sheriff will lock him up in county. I will send an official escort to transport him to headquarters. Your orders are to intercept the transport.”

“You never cease trying to cover your own ass.”

“I have endured the most risks for this damn operation. I will not allow our eagerness to cloud the operational procedure. He must be shown responsible for the events that have transpired. This is the final phase. If this fails, I go down. If I go down, you go down. Are we clear?”

“Very well. I will call you when it is finished.”

 

~

 

“She’s late,” he whispered, glaring down at his wrist watch.

Re-examining the text he sent her shortly after evading the police at the hotel, he began to worry. “St. Ignatius Roman Catholic parish is no more than a forty-five minute drive. She’s been to Waxahachie many times. What is taking her so long?”

Hearing the large, wooden doors of the parish slam shut, along with the sound of quickly paced, intentional walking, Brush slid the curtain of the confessional booth open just enough to confirm identity.

“Alpha-Zulu-November,” said Kelly, sliding open the door, revealing the screen between booths.

“Oscar-Delta-Bravo,” he replied.

“I’m glad you made contact. How are you doing?”

“I’ve been better.”

“Have you located the girls?”

“No, but considering all the trouble I’ve caused, it wouldn’t make sense for them to still be in the U.S. They know I’m hunted. Crossing the border is nearly impossible for me at this point.”

“Well, Dad said your picture has been sent to the border patrol. And, the state is on high alert as well. It’s over, isn’t it,” she asked, tears forming in her eyes.

Brush remained silent. Hearing Kelly struggle caused him to choke-up as well.

“Is it,” she asked, the desperation in her voice unmistakable.

“Circumstances have gotten more complicated, but it isn’t over. I will retrieve Amber.”

“It’s good to hear your voice again.”

“Yours too.”

“Where will you go next?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“Just be careful, Andy.”

“The next time we meet, this will all be over.”

“How is this going to end?”

Brush shook his head. “I don’t know, but if they’ve hurt her in any way, so help me God they’ll pay.”

 

~

 

He waited until the one remaining clergyman still present in the building had departed the sanctuary before stepping out of the booth.

Disappearing through the backdoor, he was almost to his vehicle when the sheriff and his three deputies emerged from behind the tree line.

“Freeze right where you are,” ordered the sheriff with two of his deputies, their weapons raised. The third remained quiet, nervous.

Brush reached for his 9mm.

“Don’t do it, boy,” said the sheriff.

“Why not,” he asked, removing the firearm from its holster. “Huh? Why the hell not?”

“You don’t want to kill a cop, son. You got a lot to live for. I know who you are, what you been through. It’s terrifying, but it’s time to end this. Let us take you in.”

“There’s only one way to end this,” he replied, his firearm now aimed at the sheriff’s head, “and it’s not here, not now.”

“Son, you don’t lower your weapon, you’re going to force my hand. Now, I said, drop your weapon.”

He slowly turned, searching for a way out. With the parking lot near empty, and the tree line blocked by the police, his options for cover were nil.

“Don’t even think about running, son. I have men positioned at the perimeter. Short of murdering a slew of law enforcement officials to escape, you’re trapped.”

“Don’t test me.”

“Listen, son. Just lower your weapon.”

“I can’t. I do, and she dies.”

“Look, even if you managed to blast your way out of here, the state is locked down, as is the border. This isn’t the way to get your daughter back. You don’t stand a chance. It’s over. I’m sure if you tell the bureau what you know, they’ll bring your daughter home.”

“You’re a damn fool to have that much faith in the system,” he said, using his left hand to grip the barrel of his weapon, extending his arm out to the sheriff.

“I know our system is broken, but we’re the defenders of it, the keepers. If we don’t at least try to believe in it, what are we doing?”

Brush stepped in front of his truck, his legs spread, arms outstretched. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “I don’t know.”

As the sheriff approached from behind, he placed his right hand on Brush’s right shoulder to begin the pat-down. Before the sheriff could react, Brush trapped his hand with his left, twisting his arm over his head and behind the sheriff’s back, forcing him to the ground in the process.

Removing his .45 from the small of his back, Brush fired in between the legs of the deputy on his left, simultaneously firing a round into the tree next to the deputy in front of him.

“Drop it,” he ordered the third deputy, “or I will blow your head off.”

“Do it,” interjected the sheriff, rising up on one knee. “There are no heroes, son.”

Brush kicked the deputy’s firearm into the woods before placing him in a rear naked choke. “You’re going to help me evade your men, sheriff.”

“Or, what,” he asked, standing to his feet.

Brush pulled the hammer back, his firearm flush against the deputy’s temple. “Just get me out of here.”

“Years ago, I was in military intelligence before transitioning to the CIA and eventually the sheriff’s office. So, when I tell you I know you’ve been set up, I’m telling you the truth. It’s not a tactic.”

“Glad to know you believe me. Now, get me out of here.”

“I don’t think you’re hearing me, son. You need to come with me. It would be in your best interest.”

“And, it would be in his best interest for you to assist me in evading your men,” he replied, firing a round into the deputy’s foot.

“It’s a very real possibility that if you don’t come with me right now, your daughter will die,” said the sheriff, ignoring his deputy’s screams.

Brush gripped the deputy by the throat, slamming him into the grill of the truck. “Cut the cryptic talk and tell me what you know, sheriff,” he said, forcing the barrel of the .45 into the deputy’s mouth. “If you’re who you say you are, then you know that now’s not the time to test me.”

“Hold it,” said the sheriff, advancing toward Brush.

“No closer,” he ordered, firing a round near the sheriff’s feet.

“Brush, it’s no coincidence I’m here.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” he replied, his grip tightening on the deputy’s throat as he dug the barrel into the man’s eye socket.

“I’ve been in contact with my old handler. He sent me to apprehend you.”

“I don’t believe you,” he screamed, his eyes stayed on the deputy.

“Sure, we received an anonymous tip, but it wasn’t until we were already en-route. He’s been monitoring you ever since you went under eighteen months ago. He asked me to find you. He wants to help.”

“Cute story, sheriff, but time’s up. Either find me a hole in your perimeter, or there’s going to be a lot of blood on your hands.”

The sheriff cautiously approached Brush, his hands in the air. “November-Echo-Whiskey-Mike-Alpha-November,” he whispered. “It’s time to get caught.”

Brush stood silent.

The sheriff backed away. “Now, listen,” he ordered, his weapon drawn, “if you don’t come with me right now, the officers on-site will shoot-to-kill. It’s a standing order.”

Brush released the deputy, dropping his weapon to the ground. “Take me in,” he whispered, “just hurry.”

 

~

 

“What was all that crap about the CIA and your old handler watching that lunatic,” asked the injured deputy, the paramedics tending to his foot.

“Just a tactic I learned at Quantico. That man is a paranoid schizophrenic. And, sometimes, the best way to talk someone in that condition down, is to play into their delusion.”

“So, none of what you said was real?”

“Not a word.”

“Nice job, boss. You sure had me fooled.”

“Been at this a long time, son. You keep at it long enough, you’ll get there too.”

“Sheriff,” interrupted the paramedic, “we need to transfer him to the hospital now.”

“Alright,” he replied. “Take good care of him.”

As the ambulance sped away, the sheriff headed to the station with Brush in the backseat. “You damn near blew his foot off, boy,” said the sheriff, the echo of his words drawing Brush from his thoughts.

“What’d you expect? You know better than to corner someone in my position.”

“I also know you’re thickheaded. Good grief, did they not teach you to take a hint?”

“Whatever he wants, I don’t have the time. My daughter could be executed at any moment. There’s no time to waste playing whatever game this is. Tell me why he’s doing this? What’s really going on?”

“Not here, not now. He will make contact. Until then, you will wait.”

 

~

 

At the station, it was not long before the aforementioned contact was made. Brush was resting on the cot in his cell when the call came in.

“Sheriff, you have a call on line one,” said the deputy, nearly knocking his coffee mug onto the floor with the phone cord stretched to its max. “It seems urgent.”

“Alright, patch him through,” replied the sheriff, reaching for the handset before returning to his reclined position. “Hello, this is Hume.”

“Hello, Sheriff Hume. This is Special Agent Ebherst from the FBI. It is my understanding you apprehended my suspect earlier this evening.”

“Yes, sir. He’s in holding now.”

“Great, great. So, listen, there’s already a transport en route, it will arrive in less than ten minutes.”

“Okay. What do you need from us?”

“I need you to let me speak to the prisoner.”

“Uh, well, that’s not exactly protocol.”

“While I appreciate your efforts to uphold protocol, I am the lead investigator in this case. That alone grants me permission to speak with all parties involved. Furthermore, a high-profile case like this must be dealt with speedily.”

“Whatever you say. Just as long as this doesn’t come back to bite me in the keister. Let me grab the cordless.”

Hume slid the phone between two of the bars. “It’s for you,” he said. “It seems the sharks are already circling.”

“I’m executing my right to remain silent,” replied Brush. “He can kiss my ass if he thinks I’m going to cooperate in any way possible.”

“I think you’re going to want to take this,” whispered Hume. “It’s him.”

“Well, how does it feel catching the wrong guy, Agent,” asked Brush, returning to his cot.

“It feels pretty damn good,” replied Newman, maintaining his cover. “Now, you listen to me, you little bastard. There’s an FBI transport en route to escort you back to Dallas. It will arrive in less than five minutes. Do you have a plan for your defense?”

“Negative. Just flying by the seat of my pants at the moment.”

“Figured as much, which is why I arranged for counsel. ETA is now three minutes. Make it count, Brush. I don’t need to stress to you the stakes.”

Newman disconnected the call.

Brush rose from his cot and walked over to the bars. “Hume,” he said, dangling the cordless phone through one of the openings, “you want your—” he paused, his words interrupted by the sight of the individual who had just entered the building.

It was a dark-haired man of medium build, donning a black suit with a distinctive clerical collar. Brush watched on as the man proceeded through the entryway and into the sheriff’s office. “It can’t be,” he whispered.

His stomach tensed, a bead of sweat began to form on his brow as the man turned toward Brush having been given specific instructions from the sheriff.

“Hello, Andrew,” said Weinkauf, a sympathetic smile on his face. He extended his hand through the bars.

Brush shook his hand. “It’s been a while.”

“Indeed it has,” replied Weinkauf. “If you don’t make your move now, it doesn’t happen,” he whispered.

“You’re the back-up,” exclaimed Brush. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper.

“I’m not entirely onboard with this either. But, if our mutual friend says you’re in trouble, I believe him.”

“Still carrying at six o’clock?”

“I may be LCMS clergy, but I’m still a Tex—.”

Before he could finish his sentence, Brush shot his arm out of the cell, grasping Weinkauf by the throat, wrenching him into the bars.

Still gripping his throat, Brush slid his right hand underneath Weinkauf’s suit jacket, removing his .38 special. Thrusting him into the adjoining cell, Brush stepped back before firing two rounds into the cell lock.

“Get up,” he ordered, his weapon aimed at Weinkauf.

“Don’t do this,” said the sheriff, as him and his two deputies slowly advanced toward Brush, weapons drawn. “The FBI is on the premises.”

“Did you park offsite,” whispered Brush, his left hand clenching the back of Weinkauf’s collar, his right forcing the barrel into the nape of his neck.

“Of course,” he replied.

“Where’s the nearest exit, sheriff,” asked Brush.

“Now listen, I—”

“Dammit, sheriff, I’m done firing warning shots. If I’m still in here when the agents walk through that door, I will kill you and your deputies. Do you understand me?”

“The door behind you leads to the supply room. You’ll find an unsecured exit off to the left. It will take you where you need to go. Just don’t hurt anyone.”

“Much obliged,” replied Brush, releasing his grip on Weinkauf long enough to open the door.

“I thought you were going to let him go,” asked the sheriff. “You said you wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

“The game has changed, sheriff. No one is off limits, not anymore. You tell the agents, if they prevent me from retrieving my daughter, I will kill them all.”

 

~

 

She woke in a cold sweat. Dazed, she tried to wipe her face with her hand, only to be held back by the cuffs. Opening her eyes, she found herself back in the bedroom at the residence in Matamoros. Looking down at her feet, she slowly rotated her ankles. They were cuffed as well.

Her constant sneezing greatly amplified her facial discomfort. She was in bad shape and she knew it. The deep pain in her nose had worsened. The left side of her face numb, swollen, her lip split, dried blood caked around her mouth.

She heard a noise coming from the hallway. Paranoid, unable to force her eyes to focus, she lifted her head, trying to spot whoever had entered the room.

Suddenly, she vomited all over her chest. “I need—” she whispered before her head dropped to her pillow, her body limp.

Waking a second time, she stayed lying still, mumbling incoherently.

“If I did not know any better, I would say you were coming down from a heroin high.”

“Who’s there? You know what? I don’t care. You’re just going kill me anyway. Let me die.”

“Just give it a few more hours. You will return to your normal pain-in-the-ass self in no time.”

“That’s not nice. Why did you say that to me?”

“You are seriously out of it. I will come back with your meal later.”

“You’re so nice, Seve.”

 

~

 

“What did you do to me,” she screamed, kicking her legs, determined to free herself from the bedframe.

“I want a shower and some food,” she continued, her persistence garnering the attention of Carlos. “I know you can hear me. I want a change of clothes, too.”

She stopped when she heard the tumblers click.

Her eyes widened as the man entered the room.

“What,” asked Juan. “Not happy to see me?”

“Where’s Seve?”

“He is otherwise engaged, tonight. Until he returns, you are my responsibility.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, but you’re not my type.”

“I do not understand.”

“Oh, you’re jealous of the time he spends with me, right? Have you told him?”

“Told him what?”

“That you’re secretly gay, that you love him. You never know. If he feels the same, you can run off together.”

Juan’s face turned beet red. Gripping her dinner plate, he threw it against the wall, shattering it. “Your mouth just cost you your dinner.”

“Oh, now you’re punishing me? Did you get permission from Cousin Carlos first?”

“Dammit, girl,” he yelled.

Leaning over her, he grabbed her face, squeezing hard enough to break open her lip. “You listen and you listen well, little girl. Carlos may desire to use in other revenue streams, but I will not rest until you have a bullet in your head. Do you understand?”

She stared at him, scared.

“You are a cute one,” he said, releasing his grip. “Maybe you and I can have a little fun before I kill you,” he continued, running his fingers through her hair.

“In your dreams, scumbag.”

Forcing her mouth open, he kissed her, running his tongue across her face. She tried to scream, but his hand prevented it, rendering her screams as faint cries, pleas for help.

Her only consolation appeared when Seve burst through the door. “What are you doing?”

“I am teaching the girl a little lesson in respect.”

Seve shot him a disapproving glare.

“What,” he asked, climbing off the bed.

“I have it from here. You can leave now.”

“I will leave when I feel she has learned her lesson. She has not learned it, yet. Have you,” he asked, chuckling as Amber stared terrified.

“Carlos ordered you to the conference room ten minutes ago. When you did not show, he sent me looking. I suggest you hurry.”

“My radio is dead.”

“Go,” ordered Seve, turning on the bathroom faucet.

Letting the water run warm, he soaked a bath towel, cleaning the blood from her face. “How are you feeling?”

She remained silent, wincing as he scrubbed out her facial lacerations.

“This should make you more comfortable.”

“What do you care? Juan is just going to kill me, anyway.”

“You are most likely correct. However, this reality does not mean I do not care.”

“So, what exactly happened last night?”

“You assaulted your client. Juan caught up to you before you escaped the hotel. Carlos is very displeased.”

“That guy is a total creep. He wanted to rape me.”

“He is a very powerful man. Your actions will surely have lasting consequences. Repercussions will follow. I am certain of it.”

“Is my dad really dead?”

Seve kept his focus on her face, avoiding eye contact. “If Carlos says he is, he is.”

About that time, Esmeralda and Lupe entered the room. Ordering them to attend to Amber’s needs, he disappeared to the conference room.

“Carlos, sorry I am—”

Carlos held up his hand. He was on the phone.

“Eduardo, I am placing you on speaker.”

“Yes, sir. Tell me when you are ready.”

“Speak. What is the good news? What is happening in the great state of Texas?”

“I’m afraid there is good news and potentially bad news.”

“Continue.”

“For the past thirty-six hours, my agents have scoured your ranch, identifying bodies, cleaning up debris, and attempting to re-create the events that took place.”

“Sounds invigorating.”

“I must say, Carlos, you’re in a peculiar mood this morning.”

“Agent Brush is dead. My money is nearly returned to me in full. Life is good.”

“Well—”

“What do you mean by this?”

“Slow down. Let me start with the good news. Brush has successfully been framed for everything. His reputation is toast.”

“The bad?”

“There’s no way anyone survived.”

“Unless I am missing something, this is excellent news.”

“Well—”

“Well, what?”

“We have recovered many bodies. Most we can identify, some we cannot. ”

“What are you saying?”

“Brush is in the wind.”

“Impossible.”

“Perhaps, he is one body we are unable to identify. Once we run dentals, we will know for sure. Until then, it is a possibility.”

“What about the three man strike team you sent?”

“There is no sign they ever made it.”

“Have they made contact to confirm the kill?”

“Negative.”

“Dammit,” he yelled, slamming his fist onto the table. “That pain in the ass. We must confirm his death. If we cannot, we must plan for his descent into Matamoros.”

“You really think he will come for her?”

“As long as one breath exists in his body, he will continue pursuing her.”

“Another thing.”

“Yes.”

“The body is missing, as are the pictures.”

Carlos remained silent.

“Juan is tracking the wife. We believe she is in communication with someone via a burner cell.”

“Brush?”

“Maybe. If so, a plan is in place to take him out. Juan is prepared for drastic measures.”

“Very well. Keep me informed.”

 

 

 

10

 

Not Easily Broken

 

Agent Pace took a deep breath, exhaling as he extended his arms above his head. “I love springtime in Silicon Valley. It doesn’t get much better than this.”

“Save for the fact we’re here because a psychopath is hiding in the shadows, systematically targeting and eliminating computer programmers,” replied Agent Basin, leading his team from the hotel lobby.

“Touché, boss.”

Agent Straight abruptly approached Brush from the side, nearly causing him to trip over her. “Excuse me,” he blurted, dancing around her to prevent himself from falling.

“Sorry,” she replied, her gaze to the ground. “I just,” she paused. “Happy five years,” she continued, extending her hand.

“What’s this,” he asked, as she dropped a coin into his hand.

“It’s a BAU tradition, an unofficial five year chip. I order them for everyone.”

A slight grin developed as he carefully examined both sides. “Thanks. I appreciate the gesture.”

“Sorry we couldn’t celebrate with a cake.”

“If only these serial criminals executed their fantasies within the confines of a set time, geez.”

She chucked.

Back at the local precinct, Agent Basin gathered the team in the conference room, handing each of them an information sheet from which they would develop their profile.

“What do we know so far,” he asked.

“Each victim was poisoned in their home,” said Brush. “The perp started sloppy, and with the most insignificant person, perfecting his craft as he moved up the ladder.”

“He preys in the middle of the night, entering through an open window or door, skilled enough to disable security systems. Once inside undetected, he contaminates the air supply with lethal levels of carbon dioxide, causing hypercapnia,” said Carnahan.

“Why kill them,” asked Pace. “If he’s a programmer like I think he is, why murder? Why not hack their systems and wreak massive havoc?”

“That’s what we’re here for,” said Basin. “Carnahan?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Go visit the local M.E., a one Dr. Pine. See what he can offer. The rest of us will examine crime scenes, scour evidence, conduct interviews—the normal.”

 

~

 

“Lack of visible bruising around the neck, no rope burns, no defensive wounds, in fact, there’s no outward indication this person died of strangulation. Have you checked his lungs, yet,” Carnahan asked, placing the magnifying glass on the counter while she slid her bare hand into a latex glove.

“I haven’t checked any of the victims’ lungs. It’s my understanding the only evidence we’d find in them would be smoke, and since none of their houses were on fire—”

“Yes,” she interrupted, lifting a scalpel from the metal tray, skillfully opening the victims’ chest cavity, removing his lungs, “but the first internal sign of asphyxia is swollen lungs.”

“Take a look at that,” she continued, handing him the magnifying glass.

“My, those are greatly inflamed.”

“This great a discovery drastically changes the profile. Is there anything else you missed? I mean, what exactly did you check for?”

“Hey, don’t get pissy with me, lady. I did my job. I checked the most common areas for signs of homicide. They’re all the same. Not even one of the victim’s hyoids was broken, no sign of a struggle, no ligature marks, as you already noted, and no burst blood vessels in the eyes.”

“So, tell me,” she said, tossing her gloves in the garbage can, “what, then, is your professional opinion?”

Dr. Pine straightened his posture. “Inconclusive.”

“Really,” she asked, shaking her head in disapproval. “Why don’t you just take the night off? I’ll handle the rest. Go home, read a book.”

“Now,” she continued, re-gloving, “to figure out what’s really going on.”

 

~

 

“What is it,” she asked, answering her cellphone with her right elbow, as she dropped the victim’s kidneys into a metal bowl. “Kind of busy, here.”

“Calling for an update. What do you have?”

“Well, I sent the good doctor home hours ago, if that tells you anything.”

“You have to stop doing that, Carnahan. We’re here only with their permission.”

“I know. I’m sorry, but the man is stubborn and lazy. He overlooked so much.”

“Tell me you found something.”

“Neither victim had broken ribs, or foaming in the airways. They were clear of all obstructions, and none of the lungs contained blood, water, or smoke. Two hearts were slightly enlarged, prompting me to check for altered blood chemistry.”

“You were right. This changes everything.”

~

 

“Two weeks in the Valley was two weeks too many,” Brush said, as he and Pace entered the bullpen.

“More like two weeks not enough.”

“We pulled nineteen hour days. How did you possibly enjoy that? I’m ready to drop.”

“Man, you need to learn to—”

Brush motioned for Pace to be quiet.

“Agent Brush speaking,” he said, knocking over a stack of files in his haste to answer his desk line.

“Andrew Brush,” asked the voice on other end.

“This is he.”

“My name is Vince Newman. I’m an agent with the Central Intelligence Agency. I’m calling to order you to CIA headquarters. You have one hour.”

“Seriously? What’s this about?”

“That is classified information, Agent Brush, information I am not at liberty to share over an unsecured line.”

“Listen, I just got off a two week operation of nineteen hours days. I appreciate you thinking of me, but I have no business with the CIA. However, if you would like to follow the chain of command, I can put you in touch with my SAC.”

“That won’t be necessary as I just faxed a signed memo from the director of the FBI to your SAC. One hour, Agent Brush. Not a minute later.”

“How about you shoot me over a copy as well? Seeing as I don’t know who the hell you are, and certainly don’t trust you.”

“You listen to me, you little bastard. I don’t enjoy working with feebs anymore than you enjoy working with us. But, we don’t have a choice. Am I clear?”

“What are you talking about?”

Newman disconnected the line.

“That was awkward,” he said, quickly organizing his fallen stack of files.

Changing out of his suit, he gathered his paperwork and departed for the CIA headquarters.

 

~

 

“You’re late,” said Newman, waiting outside the elevator as Brush exited.

“I don’t care. You’re lucky I’m even here,” he replied, walking straight into Newman’s office.

He helped himself to a cup of coffee.

Newman entered his office seconds after Brush.

“I would say take a seat, but I see you already have,” he said, tossing a file onto the coffee table near Brush.

Brush reached for the file. “What’s this?”

“Tell me about your first case in the BAU,” he said, reclining in his chair, copy of the file in hand. “What does that acronym mean, anyway? You know what, never mind, I don’t give a damn.”

“You’re a real ass, you know that?”

“And, you’re a feeb. I guess we’re even.”

They glared at each other.

Brush broke the silence by taking a sip of his coffee. “There’s not much to say, really. About that first case, I mean. On paper, it was a standard case, and then we showed up.”

“Elaborate.”

“Three murders, no motive. Homes ransacked, yet nothing missing. Perp killed across genders, which is rare for a serial killer. And, the methods changed dramatically within each crime, and from victim to victim.

“As soon as we deduced it to be a team of killers, my supervisor called it off after a co-worker was denied access to victim records.”

Newman nodded, not lifting his eyes from the file, noting nearly every word Brush spoke.

Brush sipped his coffee. “You know, that was my first case with the team. Why interview me? Every agent I work with has greater seniority. My supervisor led the investigation. He could certainly give you better insight.”

“And, yet, I’m asking you. Tell me, were there signs of torture? And, how large a group did the evidence support?”

“Did you not read my supervisor’s report? He handed everything over five years ago. We all did.”

“I read what he submitted. It was brief and incomplete. He was less than cooperative when I requested more information.”

Brush smiled.

“What?”

“That’s why I’m here. He disregarded your order.”

Before Newman could offer a witty reply, his office line rang. “Newman. This better be good.”

While unable to make out exactly what the caller was saying, Brush judged by Newman’s facial expressions the conversation was intensifying. His eyes widened as Newman’s face went pale, his demeanor altogether different.

Newman disconnected the line.

“My apologies for asking you down here on such short notice, for such a short meeting, Agent Brush.”

“Listen,” he continued, gathering the case files, “a lead has panned out on an unrelated case, so we’ll have to finish this another time.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“What,” asked Newman, holstering his weapon.

“I think you’re actively investigating this case,” he replied, holding up the case file, “and interviewing me to dig up a lead, which you just uncovered.”

“Even if I were, you would never know. It’s far above your clearance level.”

“Don’t do that. You know I hate unsolved cases.”

“As does every other law enforcement agent in the world. Big whoop.”

“I can help.”

“Unlike you, Brush, I investigate and solve cases before people are murdered. You can’t help me.”

“Really? Because four people were brutalized before you even cared to show up five years ago. That’s a damn fine job, Newman.”

“What do you want, Brush?”

“Back in.”

“Not a chance in hell.”

Newman headed for his office door.

Brush quickly stood, effectively blocking Newman from leaving the room. “As far as I was concerned, this case was buried. You brought me back in. I’m a part of this now. I’m coming with you.”

“You better move your ass, Brush. Get the hell out of my way before I move you myself.”

Brush sidestepped the door, following Newman as he navigated to the stairwell. “If the director granted you access to FBI records, and my personal knowledge of the case, he would probably agree taking me off the case could be detrimental. Should I call and ask?”

Newman sighed. “I will allow you to accompany me under two circumstances,” he said, accelerating his pace down the staircase.

“Name them.”

“You keep your mouth shut, and stay the hell out of my way. Disregard either, and you’re out. Understand?”

“No promises.”

 

~

“Don’t tell me we’re driving all the way to Turtle Lake,” asked Brush, as they exited the parking garage in Newman’s government vehicle.

Keeping his eyes glued to the road, Newman kept quiet, not even acknowledging Brush had spoken.

“Where to, boss?”

Newman glared at him before redirecting his attention back to the road.

“You never did tell me about the lead. Who are we going after first?”

“There’s no we,” Newman replied coldly. “It’s me. The CIA. Not we.”

“Really? Still driving that nail, huh?”

Newman growled under his breath. “New evidence suggests a rogue group of highly trained, ex-navy seals.”

“Does your new evidence offer insight into their motive? Were they after something?”

“Listen to me very carefully. What I am about to share with you is highly classified. It can’t leave this vehicle, ever. Do you understand?”

Brush nodded.

“The victims were part of a list.”

“What list?”

“The CIA operates a science division for researching experimental projects. When top secret information went missing, found in the hands of the very enemies we were concealing it from, we knew we had been compromised from the inside.”

“Fair assumption.”

“Completely in the dark about the identity of the mole, but certain they were after the scientists, we planted a second list, a fake one, a list of retired agency scientists. Then, we waited.”

“Why didn’t you just trace the digital footprints back to the source?”

“Really? We’re the CIA. You don’t think we tried?”

“Okay. Continue.”

“Whoever infiltrated our system entered completely under the radar. No detection, whatsoever. There were no tracks to cover, no traces to follow. It was as if our system was never breached.”

“Were you actually even hacked, or could the mole have retrieved the information using their clearance?”

“We’re not positive. But, we believe it to be a mole.”

Brush sat silent.

“Anyway,” Newman continued. “Three days after the file was accessed, our techs noticed remote activity on the system, and within seven days, the first scientist had been murdered. Three months, and two murders later, you were called in by the locals.”

“Your guys were unable to trace the remote access?”

“The back trace bounced them all over the globe. However, since the agency doesn’t allow remote access to any servers, someone had to have gained access to the network in order to grant remote access to the clients.”

“Proving it was either entirely an inside job, or at the very least, someone was paid to look the other way.”

“Exactly.”

“Wait a second.” Brush paused, shifting in his seat. “If nothing was taken from the victim’s homes five years ago, which list were the victims on?”

“The fake one, of course, which is why I contacted you. We just received word the actual list was retrieved from our secure server, and now the first scientist on the team is dead.”

“Wait a minute. So, you—” Brush paused, choosing his words carefully as the rage inside him took control.

“How in the hell do you get off planting innocent agent’s names on a list, knowing full well they’re going to be murdered? You used them as bait and didn’t even think twice.”

“If we had planted false identities, the enemy would have known, and either retreated, or accelerated their plan. We couldn’t afford to find out which. There is much more at risk than the lives of a few agents.”

“Three innocent people, dedicated agents of yours were cut down in their own homes, brutally tortured for information they knew nothing about. That doesn’t bother you? Who in the hell do you think you are?”

“Another reason I hate the FBI. Just a bunch of—”

“You don’t get it. Those people had families, young children. One of the victims was a mother for God’s sake. What were you thinking?”

Newman sat quiet.

Brush shook his head. “You’re a real ass. You know that?”

“That’s what separates us, I guess. I’m willing to get my hands dirty for my country, to do whatever it takes to keep our nation safe from threats to our homeland.

“You feebs deal with your little murder cases, maybe getting a scumbag off the streets now and then, but without us doing what we do best, the FBI wouldn’t exist.

“The CIA deals with the difficult, morally gray operations because your shallow little egos couldn’t handle the cold, hard reality.”

“Whatever you tell yourself to sleep at night.”

Newman pulled the SUV onto the shoulder. “Do you want to work this case, or not?”

Brush nodded.

“Listen. I know you’re young, and new at this.”

“I’ve been with the bureau for over twelve years.”

“Your outlook is commendable, especially after more than a decade of this, most of which you spent hunting down drug lords.

“However, stay here long enough, you will eventually understand sometimes situations require us to play by the rules of the enemy. We can’t always worry about keeping strict moral guidelines, or even laws.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“You’ll see. As sure as you do, a new enemy will rise more ruthless than the last, and will crush you unless you rise above the rules. Sometimes, it’s the only way.”

“So, you condone murder as long as the mission is successful? The end justifies the means?”

Newman sighed. “You’re not getting it, kid. The greatest advantage the enemy has, is knowing we must play by the rules. The moment we show them otherwise, no matter how great a smoke screen it is, is the moment we turn the tide.”

Brush glanced at his wrist watch. “Get back on the road.”

“Oh, damn,” said Newman, reading the time on the dash before merging onto the highway. “We’re going to be late.”

“Late for what,” asked Brush. “I thought we were just going to a crime scene.”

“We are, in Colorado Springs.”

 

~

 

“Really,” asked Brush, pointing to the car Weinkauf led him to. “This is what you’re driving nowadays?”

“What? It gets good gas mileage.”

Brush widened his eyes. “I bet it does.”

“Just shut up and drive,” he ordered, tossing Brush the keys. “Time is of the essence.”

“How did you determine her location to be the compound in Matamoros,” asked Weinkauf.

“It’s the only place left that makes sense. I’ve blown up or ransacked every known location inside the U.S. With the border locked down, my description everywhere, heading to Mexico was Carlos’ smartest move, maybe his last.”

“And, you’re certain you hit every location?”

“Every known location.”

“What about their casinos and escort services?”

“Carlos doesn’t mix business ventures. When I worked for him, he would flip out any time we were seen together outside the usual. He’s extremely paranoid.”

“Crossing the border with a hostage would be risky, even for Carlos. But, if successful, would make for the perfect setup.”

Brush offered Weinkauf a disapproving glance. “You’ve been out of this far too long.”

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

El Diablo owns the trafficking routes. Transporting my daughter, the entire operation would be a cinch.”

“How long has it been?”

“Almost fifteen years.”

“I’m truly sorry about your daughter, Andrew. I can’t even begin to imagine your pain.”

“So, was it hard trading your .45 for a bible?”

Weinkauf offered a slight grin.

“Well?”

“I would be lying if I said there weren’t times I missed the action. However, this is where I’m meant to be.”

“We had some great times together. You were by far my greatest partner, hands down.”

Weinkauf smiled. “So, how do you know they’re headquartered in Matamoros?”

“Carlos was planning a celebration. I was to meet the rest of the family. I overheard him mention it.”

“Sister city of Brownsville. They operate the Fort Brown Border Patrol Station.”

“How on earth do you remember that?”

“I worked the cartels with you, Andrew. Saved your bacon more than once, don’t you forget that.”

“The way I remember it was you lying unconscious on the storeroom floor while I was being gunned down.”

“You would remember that specific instance.”

Brush chuckled.

“Should we assume El Diablo owns the guards at Fort Brown,” Weinkauf asked, directing Brush into the parking garage of an abandoned office building.

“I’m sure they have a few in their pocket.”

 

~

 

After parking the car in the farthest stall, they waited. Fifteen minutes later, Newman pulled up in his nondescript surveillance van.

“I see the reverend held up his end,” he said, motioning for them to get inside.

“Thank you, Newman. I owe you so much.”

He shook his head. “No, son. I owe you. That’s why I’m here. You’re one hell of an agent. And, the bureau needs to burn for what they’ve done to you.”

“When I get my hands on that son of a bitch Carlos, I’m going to rip his heart out.”

Weinkauf stared in silence.

“You remember how to handle a firearm,” asked Newman, gripping the barrel of a .45, extending it to Weinkauf.

“Of course,” he replied, taking it from him. “However, I will not be engaging the enemy.”

“What,” asked Brush. “We need you.”

“I will assist in the rescue of you daughter. But, I will not open fire on anyone. Not anymore.”

Brush turned to Newman for guidance.

“Hey, don’t look at me. When I contacted him, he told me he would assist. This is the first I’m hearing about him going all creampuff on us.”

“Maybe this was a bad idea.”

“I can assist without bloodshed.”

“No, you can’t. We are preparing to enter enemy territory, behind enemy lines, in a country we will have entered illegally, to invade the compound headquarters of a cartel aptly named El Diablo. How do you think this is going to end? Negotiation?”

“The only negotiation is with one of these,” said Newman, removing a rocket launcher from his duffle.

“Let’s start with the logistics and go from there,” replied Weinkauf, unfolding a map of Matamoros.

 

~

 

“Tell me again why I’m out here?”

“I wasn’t sure how this was going to play out. So, I hid a flash drive under a garbage can near a park bench at the Ten Mile Creek Preserve in Lancaster.”

“This place is kind of huge. Any hints?”

“Exactly one mile in, there’s a plaque honoring someone for something related to the park, I don’t care. Across from it sits the can. Reach underneath; it’s secured to the base.”

“How does this help us,” he asked, increasing his pace to a brisk walk, wincing as the burning sensation in his shins intensified. “This is wasted time. I mean, if the data on this drive is so valuable in rescuing my daughter, don’t you have a backup?”

“I couldn’t risk it.”

“Couldn’t risk what,” asked Brush, cradling his side, the shooting pain robbing him of air.

“If Weinkauf failed in retrieving you from lockup, we needed a plan b. From this point on, we can’t be too careful.”

“You were planning to go after Carlos without me?”

There was silence on the other end.

“Newman?”

“I owe you that much, Brush. With or without you, I will retrieve your daughter. El Diablo will answer for what they’ve done.”

“Thank you.”

“Enough cheese, Brush. Are you to the plaque, yet?”

“Yep,” he grunted, lowering himself to the ground, reaching underneath the garbage can for the drive.

“Get your ass back to the van, now.”

“Roger,” he replied, disconnecting the line.

 

~

 

“Here,” said Newman, tapping on his computer screen. “Take a look at this. Memorize it. Both of you. It’s critical to the mission.”

“Mission,” asked Brush, taking a seat at the desk.

“Missions keep us objective,” he replied. “As far as I’m concerned, this is a priority one extraction.”

“Before we get started, why don’t you attend to your wounds, Andrew,” asked Weinkauf.

“Bathroom’s down the hall to the left,” said Newman. “Make it fast.”

“What’s with the satellite imagery,” asked Weinkauf, closely examining the data.

“Surely you didn’t hack the NSA,” asked Brush, coming from the bathroom. “The CIA’s too good for that, right?”

 

 

“That is none of your concern.”

“It is if it can be traced back to you. You’re retired, your clearance revoked. You didn’t compromise the mission by pulling these images, did you?”

“I’m not even going to entertain that question,” replied Newman. “Moving on,” he continued. “I ran a frame by frame scan of Matamoros and found a match.”

“You’ve located El Diablo?”

Newman nodded, his eyes glued to the screen. “And, the place is a fortress.”

“Zoom in closer,” said Weinkauf.

“Five hundred magnification.”

“Perfect,” he replied, clearing a spot on a nearby end table. “Print those. We have some planning to do.”

 

~

 

“How’s it going,” asked Newman, sorting through his arsenal, gathering supplies.

“Excellent,” replied Weinkauf. “Using the satellite images and local street maps, we’ve developed an extensive map of Matamoros.”

“Does it account for the territorial perimeters? We’re going to experience enough trouble with the cartel, I really would like to avoid any unnecessary issues with any others.”

“Yes. Andrew used his knowledge of local gangs and rival cartels to—”

“For the most part,” interrupted Brush, “until we enter into deep territory, we will avoid all local gang territories, and those of the rival cartels.”

“How do you feel about using a coyote route,” asked Brush, his gaze still on the map.

“I thought we were entering Mexico legally,” asked Weinkauf. “I’m not comfortable with any other way.”

“Creampuff’s at it again,” said Newman.

“I am hunted both locally and federally. How do you propose I cross the border legally,” asked Brush.

“Perhaps, we could cross as volunteers offering aid to a sister church. Considering El Diablo owns the majority of the routes, are you certain they offer a plausible solution?”

“We won’t be able to move our equipment across the border as aid workers. The second they open the crates to find our arsenal, we will be thrown in jail faster than you can offer up a prayer, reverend.”

“I agree the coyote routes are too risky. However, the aid worker idea won’t work either,” replied Brush.

Newman sat quiet.

“What are you thinking,” asked Brush.

“There’s no way around the risk,” he replied, skimming his notebook for a contact. “So, we must adapt.”

“How so,” asked Weinkauf, his intrigue peaked.

“Let me make a phone call.”

“Someone else owe you a favor,” asked Brush.

“Something like that,” replied Newman, the phone to his ear.

 

~

 

“So,” Newman continued, after a cryptic, five minute phone call. “For five grand each, I can get us false passports.”

“Which does him absolutely no good,” replied Weinkauf. “The border patrol guards are probably owned by Carlos. Can we really afford to risk that?”

“Looks like Creampuff has a temper.”

“He has a point, Newman. They know what I look like. My image has been passed to all law enforcement, both on the take and off. Thanks for trying, but—”

“It’s not over, Andrew,” interrupted Weinkauf. “We will find another way.”

Brush stood. “Short of swimming across the river, or embarking upon a ten day trek through the hundred foot deep, desert valley, we may be out of options.”

“How guarded is this place,” asked Weinkauf.

“Very,” replied Brush. “The satellite images show well over two hundred guards positioned throughout the compound in various watchtowers, others just roaming the grounds.”

Weinkauf sighed. “I may have an idea.”
“Spill,” replied Newman.

“Recently, I was approached to write an article about the influence of crime on society. With a history in the FBI, I chose to write it on the oppressive nature of the cartel-dominated society of Mexico.

“The board backed my decision to stay in Mexico while I write the article, so long as two plain clothes guards accompany me. I’m not scheduled to leave for another month, but I can re-arrange my schedule rather easily.

“Newman, can your passport guy alter Andrew’s appearance enough to get us across the border?”

Newman smiled.

“Very well,” replied Weinkauf. “Leave the rest to me,” he said, removing his cell from his interior jacket pocket.

 

~

 

“You know the drill,” said Seve.

“Why do you have to keep me cuffed to the bed? Can’t you just let me go? With my dad dead, what more do you need from me?”

“I am only doing as I am told,” he replied, securing her hands and feet to the frame.

Scooting a chair close to the bed, he straddled it, resting his chest against the back.

“Can I get something to eat? I haven’t eaten since yesterday morning.”

“I can’t, I’m sorry. You will be given something later this evening.”

“So, now you’re starving me?”

“You had your chance. You are the one who chose to fight us, to push back. I warned you you would lose.”

“You’re just like the others, aren’t you? I thought you were different, but no, you’re a sick-in-the-head bastard like the rest of them.”

Seve gazed at her with a disappointing stare. “I am afraid you brought this on yourself,” he replied, reaching under the mattress.

“What is that?”

He unzipped the brown, leather pouch.

“Please, no,” she whimpered. “You don’t have to do this.”

Seve did not respond. Instead, he reached for her arm.

“No,” she yelled, jerking at her restraints as hard as she could to break free. “Come on,” she cried, twisting her right hand partway out of the cuff.

“I think not,” he said. Keeping the pouch in one hand, he secured her hand back in the cuff before tightening it.

“Why,” she whispered, exhausted, weak.

“You have become too much of a liability. We have no choice. It is the only way to keep you calm.”

She watched as he rested the open pouch on her stomach, inserting the syringe into the bottle, squirting a little out before proceeding.

“Thanks for making sure there’s no air bubbles in the syringe. I really appreciate that, because I wouldn’t want to die while being forced to take heroine.”

“Shut up and be still,” he replied, the cold needle, inching closer to her vein.

“No,” she screamed. “I will make this hell for you,” she continued, jerking the arm in a continuous manner.

“Very well. I will radio Juan for assistance.”

“Hold her down while I inject this.”

“What? You are unable to handle a little girl?”

After a successful injection, Seve approached Juan outside her room door. “I will kill you if you talk to me like this again.”

Juan grinned. “You will not. Not only are you incapable, you are under orders not to.”

“Don’t you have a plane to catch,” asked Seve, stepping to within an inch of Juan’s face.

“This is correct; I do, because our family trusts me to take care of Brush, while you act as a nanny to his hooker daughter.”

The effects of the heroine taking control quickly, deep in Amber’s subconscious, she connected with what she had heard Juan say.

“I knew it,” she cried. “He’s alive.”

 

~

 

She woke in the dark, sweaty, confused. Unsure of where she was, she attempted to pull her arms closer, only to be met with the force of the restraints.

Realizing she was still in the bedroom, she tilted her head back, catching a glimpse of the window above her.

“It’s dark out,” she whispered, resting her head on the pillow. “Have I been out of it that long?”

Hearing faint mumblings, she tried to determine where they were coming from. “Is someone there,” she hollered.

As the voices became louder, so did the footsteps. She braced herself, afraid they were coming to administer another dose of heroine. Then, the footsteps stopped.

“Just let me kill her,” said Juan. “You money is nearly all transferred. The remainder of which will be to your account in another day or two.”

“We have no viable reason to kill her,” objected Seve.

“He is correct,” said Carlos. “With Brush in the wind, keeping the girl alive may be our best option until you can finish him off.”

“Very well,” replied Juan. “The plane leaves in one hour. When the FBI arrives at the sheriff’s office with the transport vehicle, we will be waiting.”

 

~

 

After that conversation, Amber noticed a distinct difference in their treatment toward her, especially Seve. His daily visits were abruptly decreased to once every evening. Instead of administering the heroine himself, a nurse took over, increasing the doses to five times daily.

Allowed to use the restroom only once per day, she would often soil herself, the punishment being physical abuse from Juan.

As the days progressed, even Seve developed an attitude toward her, adopting one similar to Juan. Becoming strikingly curt, he would often strike her when she talked back, refused to do as he asked, or moved slower than he expected.

In a mere couple of days, her condition rapidly deteriorated, her health declining tenfold. Deep into the low nourishment, high heroine regimen, she collapsed in the shower.

 

~

Accompanying Seve on his daily rounds, Carlos met him at their cocaine manufacturing, packing, and distribution warehouses. “This is a massive operation, Seve.”

“Thank you, brother.”

“You have expanded since I took the Australian operation. I am impressed.”

“Just like you, I do not accept failure. We have another shipment leaving for Puerto Vallarta at sunrise, and everything must be ready by midnight tonight.”

“Any labor challenges,” Carlos asked, following Seve into the offices.

“Always a few, but what can you expect when you promise them fame and fortune, only to beat and starve them, forcing them to pull eighteen hour days.”

They chuckled.

“Are you still gaining new employment from the trafficking ring down south?”

Seve nodded. “That remains the main source.”

“Very well. Now, do not mind my presence. Conduct your meeting. I will stay back.”

“Actually, I wish for you to conduct the meeting. The men always work harder after you speak to them.”

Carlos smiled. “Very well, brother.”

He stepped closer to the crowd. “Instead of coming home to meet her familia for the first time, my sister, whom I have yet to meet, is remaining in Sydney to oversee this very shipment.

“I understand you were told you had until sunrise tomorrow to finish. This is no longer the case. I want it done by midnight. No exceptions.”

“Impossible,” said a sick, elderly man.

“My apologies, old dog,” Carlos replied, strolling over to him.

“We must have until sunrise. You must give us this long,” he begged. “It is too much work.”

The man tensed his upper body as Carlos approached. Resting his right hand on the man’s shoulder, he proceeded to wipe the dust from his shirt. “You have been a faithful employee for many years.”

“I have,” choked the old man.

“Well, since you asked so nicely,” he replied.

The man offered a weary smile.

Clinching onto the man’s chin with one hand, he gripped the back of his head with the other and twisted.

His limp body dropped to the ground.

“Because of this man’s ignorance, you now have three hours. If my product is not on the truck at that time, you will all be like this old man, dead and useless.”

“You cannot kill us all,” hollered a man in his early twenties. “Then, who will do your work?”

“You are right. I guess you got me. What do I do now,” he asked, portraying a false sense of distress.

“Feed us another meal and let us go to bed early. Give us until midnight tomorrow to finish.”

“It is a deal,” replied Carlos, extending his hand to the boy. “Shake on it?”

Reluctantly, the boy extended his arm to Carlos.

Before even Seve knew what had happened, Carlos removed his firearm from its holster, firing a round into the boy’s forehead.

“Do you understand what ignorance earns you,” he asked, wiping the blood spatter from his face and neck. “Nothing. You are worthless. Refuse to work, I will kill every single one of you,” he said pointing his firearm into the crowd.

“Your resistance and subsequent death will not impact this operation. Upon your deaths, I will stroll through your villages and take whomever I so choose. Your fathers, uncles, and little brothers will work the factories, your mothers, aunts, and sisters will become hookers.

“Go ahead. Resist. And, your families will suffer.” He glanced at his watch. “You have two hours.”

 

~

 

“Ninety seconds and counting,” said Juan, standing outside the bathroom door.

“Ninety seconds? What kind of crap is that,” asked Amber, stepping into the shower.

“I figure I have smacked that smart mouth of yours enough times for you to learn to keep it shut and follow orders.”

“Whatever. I know you can’t kill me until you are certain my dad is dead, your money returned. So, go to hell, bastard.”

“You overheard?”

“Dang it,” she whispered. “I decided I wouldn’t let them know I overheard.”

“What is the hold-up?”

“Nothing. I’m in a lot of pain, right now.”

Juan laughed. “You will experience this coming off a heroine high.”

“The filter between my brain and mouth seems misaligned. Like, I can’t think it right and speak it right.”

“You have no filter, little girl.”

“Whatever.”

“Quit mouthing me and get out,” he ordered, banging on the door. “You have five seconds.”

She remained silent.

He twisted the handle to enter. “Dammit,” he whispered, not realizing she had locked the door.

Kicking it in, he burst through, ready to strike. “Step out of the shower, now, or I will hurt you,” he said, his weapon raised.

He heard a thud.

Ripping the shower curtain off the rod, he froze.

Amber was lying on the shower floor unresponsive.

Unclipping his radio from his belt, he notified Carlos. Dragging her from the shower, he moved her to the bed, covering her with a towel.

“What took you so long,” asked a frustrated Juan.

“The workers required additional motivation. This is all. Why? What is so urgent that you chose to interrupt me during inspection?”

“It is the girl. She is alive, but it does not appear she will make it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I discovered her unconscious in the shower. She is still breathing, but barely. She needs medical attention.”

“He is out making rounds. I will retrieve him.”

“If you want her alive, you better hurry.”

“Why, what just happened?”

“She just went into cardiac arrest.”

 

~

 

“It’s a good thin’ you resuscitated her when you had, Juan, because she’d a died, if you hadn’t,” said the doctor, in his thick southern accent.

“Well, how is she,” asked Seve.

“Not good,” replied Dr. Morton.

“What caused this,” asked Carlos.

“It’s hard to say until the test results get back. Could a been a stroke, or a possible overdose. My preliminary findins’ suggest she’s definitely under a lot of stress, and her body’s not respondin’ well.

“That, coupled with poor nutrition and the sudden introduction of such a large bunch a heroine,” he paused. “One things for certain, she’s not doin’ well.”

“We need her to recover,” said Carlos.

“Okay, well, she needs lots of rest, and you gotta quit givin’ her so damn much drugs. In fact, you need to stop them completely. Let her body rid itself of ‘em. It’s gonna be painful, and she’ll be on edge, but that’s the only way she’s gonna get through this.

Carlos rolled his eyes.

“You understand me? You quit with the heroine, or it will kill her. That’s a fact.”

“Very well. We will have to find another way to shut her up,” said Carlos.

“Yeah, duct tape,” replied Juan.

“Also, she needs more nutrients, three meals a day, no less. You hear me?”

“You are becoming bold in your old age, doctor. I respect how you saved my life in Belize. However, do not forget your place.”

“I’m a doctor. You asked me here. These are the facts, and the solution. Follow it or not, I really don’t care. But, don’t ask for my opinion and expect anything less than the truth.”

 

~

 

On Carlos’ orders, Esmeralda and Lupe attended to Amber for the following two days, never leaving her side. Ensuring she received the highest care, they brought in a natural remedy to aid in her withdrawal.

“I think I’d like to go for a walk now,” she said, speaking for the first time since her collapse.

“I do not know if this is such a good idea,” replied Lupe. “You must get your rest.”

“We only now stopped your nausea. Please do not push your recovery. The doctor said you need rest,” said Esmeralda.

“Especially with the work you will be starting tomorrow,” said Lupe.

“What work,” asked Amber, sitting up in bed.

“You have not heard,” asked Lupe. “You are being transferred to the coca fields to harvest the plants.”

“You will have all the fresh air you desire,” said Esmeralda. “But, do not worry. We will still be with you each night when you return from the fields.”

“Thank God. I would much rather do that than turn tricks. No offense.”

“You will be in the fields by four in the morning,” said a voice on the other end of the door.

As Carlos entered the room, the ladies stood, while Amber remained sitting on her bed.

“Are you hear to make sure I’ve been cuffed for the night, or to tuck me in and read me a bedtime story?”

“So help me, I will kill you if you screw this up.”

“Sure you will, because I haven’t heard that one before.”

“I see you are feeling better.”

“Like a million dollars.”

He inched closer, shooting his arm out, gripping her by the throat. “I have my money. Every last cent. So, the moment I confirm the death of your father is the moment your life ceases.”

As his grip tightened, her airways more challenged, she hauled off and smacked him as hard as she could right in the face. Startled, he loosened his grip, allowing her the opportunity to spit in his face.

Angered, he raised his hand to strike, the force of the backhand knocking her head into the lamp on the nightstand, re-opening the wound on her lip.

“Cuff her,” he ordered, wiping his face on his sleeve, preparing to leave.

“My dad’s coming for you.”

“Is that right? How are you so certain?”

“You better pray to the living God that when he finds you, he has mercy, because you’re in for one hell of a beat down.”

“Maybe so, but regardless, you will not live to see it, now, will you?”

“You sure talk a mean talk, but just wait until he shows up. You won’t even know he’s here. He’ll just pop in, blow this place to hell, grab me, and leave.

“And, if he finds out that you’ve murdered me, there will be no place you can hide that he won’t find you, and tear you limb from limb, you bastard.”

A slightly concerned Carlos exited the room. Removing his radio from his pocket, he contacted his brother.

“Seve, double the guards. Tell the watchtowers to keep extra attentive. I wish for no surprises. It appears Brush may be coming for her sooner than I thought.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11

 

Though the Body Says Stop

 

As the tiny CIA jet departed the private airfield, Brush reclined in his seat, a freshly brewed cup of coffee in one hand, the case file in the other. Newman sat across from him diligently studying his notes.

“You never did tell me,” Brush said, his eyes stayed on the file. “What are these ex-navy seals after?”

“Well—”

Brush quickly flipped through the document. “Here,” he said, “page six. It says they committed the first kill in less than three days after stealing the list.”

He paused to take a sip of his coffee. “But, we know they didn’t kill again for another month, and not again until after yet another month. What’s with that? What exactly were they after to react so quickly?”

“They’re not after anything. It’s who they’re working for.”

“Who is?”

“Russia.”

“Russia? Are you serious?”

Newman nodded.

“What do the Russians want with agency scientists?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Ok,” Brush replied, tossing the file onto the seat next to him. He glanced at his watch. “We have the time.”

“About ten years ago, the agency allocated a large sum of resources, initiating the development of a new technology. A technology by which the United States would gain a lead so great, we would forever be the world power.”

“Okay. So far, you sound a little crazy.”

Newman raised his finger to silence Brush. “Let me finish,” he said, reaching for his bottle of water. “On paper, this mobile device would assist the soldier in the battlefield to the beat cop on the street.

“In theory, the user could type in the variables of their present situation and this device would predict with ninety percent accuracy, their enemy’s next move.”

Brush sat silent.

“Cat got your tongue?”

“That’s a serious development.”

Newman nodded.

“This changes everything. To be able to utilize such technology—Did it actually work?”

“What do you think?”

“The Russians wanting to get their hands on it makes sense. How did they find out about it?”

“I wish that’s what they were after.”

Brush stared at him quizzically.

“After the initial prototype proved successful, we went on to develop an even more mobile version, an implant set in the base of the skull.”

“Turning every user into an intelligence agent.”

“Essentially, yes.”

“Unbelievable. So, why do you bring me in on this? The FBI knows nothing of this technology.”

“Due to the experimental nature of this technology, as well as the global risks associated with its development, the agency divided the blue prints among the ten scientists tasked with the project.

“None were made aware of more than their specific task. Responsible for the security of their individual component, we ensured the knowledge remained decentralized.”

“Decreasing each scientist’s individual knowledge, you rendered the capturing of them worthless.”

 

“Or, so we thought. Until this morning.”

“The call?”

“The first scientist on our list was found murdered in his home last night, tortured to death. No note, no evidence.”

“How certain are you it’s related? I mean, they haven’t struck in five years. What makes you think they would suddenly start back up?”

“It’s related.”

“What’s your evidence?”

Newman tossed the file to Brush. “I don’t know, maybe because the CIA-issued safe cut into his foundation and bolted-in underneath his furnace was ripped out, forced open with an industrial strength blow torch, probably the same one used on him.

“Or, because his section of blue prints, all his notes, and his computer containing a digital rendering are all missing.”

Brush browsed the crime scene photos. “Everything they need to recreate it,” he said, handing Newman the file.

“You asked me why I chose you for this.”

Brush nodded.

“We have to catch these bastards before they strike again. We need to first determine the order by which they are striking, so we can get to the next scientist before he is eliminated.”

“And, if we can’t before they recreate the device?”

“There will be no stopping them. Russia will be the new world power. America will flounder.”

 

~

 

Upon landing in Colorado Springs, they were met by Newman’s CIA counterparts, chauffeured to the local FBI field office. Allowing Brush to use the conference room to set up his profile, he requested only two items: a white board and a bulletin board.

“Hey, Newman,” he yelled from inside the conference room.

“One minute,” he replied from the SAC’s office.

“I need you in here when you get a chance,” Brush hollered a second time.

“What do you need,” asked Newman, entering the conference room.

“It’s been twenty minutes. And, that looked heated.”

“Yeah, it was.”

“But—”

“I won. We are now working in collaboration with the bureau, but I maintain jurisdiction. It’s my case.”

Brush turned to the white board, marker in hand. “The scientist that was killed.”

“Yeah.”

“What number was he?”

“What do you mean?”

“Ten scientists each have one part of the whole. What part did he have?”

“Sorry, my brain was somewhere else. The first part.”

Brush pulled the victim’s picture from the file and stuck it to the white board next to his number. “I need access to the other nine scientist’s files.”

“I’ll get them sent over right away.”

“After studying these crime scene photos and the autopsy report, the one thing I can say with certainty is these killers are intense. They strike hard and fast.”

“Well, we believe them to be an ex-seal team. With that in mind, I would expect nothing less.”

A newly graduated agent hesitantly entered the room to offer Brush a soda.

“What does all this mean,” she asked timidly, pointing to Brush’ chicken scratch on the white board.

“These,” he replied, running his finger down the outside of the board, “are all the victims. And, over here, I wrote each and every way they were injured by the murderers.

“And, then, over here, I matched each sadistic injury to a specific personality trait, leading us to conclude at least three individuals directly contributed to the death of each victim.”

“Interesting, but what does it mean,” she asked, staring intently at his analysis.

“It means the seal team isn’t operating as one, like they’re trained. It means there is division among them and no loyalty to their leader, if they even operate with a leader. It’s very possible they just make collaborative decisions as the need arises. It’s too early to determine.”

“You sound really passionate about all this.”

“It’s what I do,” he replied, offering an empty grin.

About that time, the door to the conference room swung open, leaving a dent in the drywall behind it. “Here are the files on the other nine,” he said, out of breath.

“You ok?”

“I’m fine.”

“Try again.”

“Some clowns at the agency refused my request for additional manpower for the surveillance teams.”

“We need those men. Without them, we—”

“Don’t worry. I gently convinced them. We have our men, as many as we need.”

Brush shook his head, chuckling under his breath. “I bet you did,” he whispered.

“Listen,” he continued, turning his attention to his profile boards. “I think I figured these guys out.”

“I’m listening.”

“They are their own weakness.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means they will be their own undoing. The disarray we observed at the crime scenes five years ago is still present today, even a little more distinct. They are getting worse, falling apart, devolving.”

“The quicker we find a weakness and apply pressure, the quicker they collapse?”

“No doubt. Now, they are an intelligent group. I believe too intelligent to eliminate the scientists in project order. We must assume they understand we would catch on fairly quickly.

“With that in mind, I plan on spending the next few hours examining the remaining scientist’s backgrounds. There must be a way for us to determine their next target.

“If not in here,” he said, slamming his fist down on the pile of nine personnel files, “then, here,” he continued, resting his other hand, palm down on the classified project details folder.

“While you chip away at that, I’m going to place two FBI and one CIA on each scientist. We can’t risk losing another. I will stay and run point from here. If anything develops, we’ll move.”

“I disagree. If we jump too early, we may spook them. You should hold off for a little longer. Give me a chance to figure this out.”

“We lost a great mind last night. I brought you in to help prevent nine more, not stand by and watch the remaining be systematically assassinated.”

“With all due respect, I’m a profiler. I analyze all aspects of the case, both data and human elements. I create my profile, and then act. I sure as hell don’t sprint into a dark alley blindfolded just because I think the guy with the grenade launcher might have run in that direction.”

“You do, now.”

“Excuse me?”

“The teams are scheduled to depart for the residences at nine, leaving you two and one half hours to figure something out.”

“What happened to all night?”

“Change of plans. You and I will be parked outside scientist number two’s residence, along with that team, just in case they are that ignorant.”

“I don’t recommend that course of action.”

“I don’t give a damn what you recommend.”

“Then, what am I doing here,” he asked, his voice elevated.

“Your job,” Newman replied, sternly exiting the conference room.

 

~

 

By ten o’clock, all agents had been dispatched, successfully planting themselves in their respective neighborhoods. Disguised as a moving company, each team parked half a block down, on the opposite side of the residence, so as to minimize the effect of their intrusion. Feeling comfortable with the operation so far, they settled in.

After finishing the takeout, the tech assigned to Newman and Brush tore open a twelve pack of soda and began guzzling one after another.

“You nervous, kid” asked Newman, shooting him a disapproving glance.

“What? I’m thirsty?”

“Well, unless you don’t mind relieving yourself in one of the cans you’ve emptied, I suggest you slow it down a little,” interrupted Brush.

“Oh,” the tech replied, staring down at his half empty can. “I guess I better stop,” he continued, placing the can in the cup holder.

At 3:30 a.m., Newman’s secure line rang.

“Who could possibly be calling you at this hour,” asked Brush.

“It’s headquarters.”

“What do they want?”

“I’m about to find out.”

Newman flipped open the phone.

“This better be good,” he answered.

“Newman, it’s Mahoney.”

“I can’t hear you. What’s all that noise?”

“Headquarters was just hit. The prototype is missing.”

“How long ago did this happen?”

“Forty-five minutes ago. We just became aware of the breach. That’s why I phoned you.”

“Casualties?”

“Seven.”

“How does a team of five amateurs break into a secure CIA facility, gain access to classified storage, and disappear without you even knowing?”

“Sir, I—”

“Lock the building down. Agents lost their lives on your watch. And, if you don’t get your head out of your ass right now, I’ll make sure you go down with them.”

Newman disconnected the call.

“So, last night—” said Brush.

“Was only the first step,” interrupted Newman. “Unable to locate the prototype at the residence, they executed a precision extraction at headquarters. The device is gone.”

“If there was any question before about their ability to recreate the device using only blueprints and digital rendering, there isn’t anymore.”

“Let’s wrap it up, boys,” Newman ordered, radioing his teams throughout the city. “Nothing’s happening out here, tonight. Go home, get some sleep. We will re-analyze the situation in the morning.”

“What about the CIA video feed,” asked the FBI tech.

“What about it,” replied Newman.

“Maybe a camera caught one of their faces?”

“The cameras were disabled before they entered the facility.”

“What about the backups?”

“Come again?”

“The CIA has backup cameras in the event the first line ones are disabled.”

“Right now, I need you to explain what you know about these backup feeds. But, when this is over, we will discuss how you gained access to this secure information.”

“Suffice it to say, I read a lot. Anyway, the feed criminals always disable is the hard wired connection. However, the CIA implements a secondary, encrypted wireless connection.”

“They probably jammed the signal,” said Brush. “That’s what I would do.”

“Ideally, yes. However, the specific signal the CIA uses is unknown to the public, and the majority of the agency itself. So, those feeds go unnoticed, untouched.”

“I’ll look into this when we get back. In the meantime, where are Agents Gilbert and Rice?”

About that time, Agent Rice entered through the driver’s door, while Gilbert climbed into the van from the rear. As Rice slid the key into the ignition, she glanced ahead, noticing four men in the distance, standing in the middle of the street, advancing toward the van.

Before she could alert the others, a blinding light enveloped the van, followed by three flashbangs penetrating the windshield.

Nearly incapacitated and coughing, with temporarily decreased vision, Brush covered his face with his shirt, instinctively dropping to the floor.

With the driver and other two agents nonresponsive, Brush gripped a barely conscious Newman by his shirt collar, dragging him out of the van. Going back in for his assault rifle, he took cover outside the van, on the side opposite the residence.

Noticing blood on his hand, Brush knelt down, shaking Newman to consciousness.

“What the hell, man?”

“You alright? Were you hit?”

“After the first flashbang entered the van, I leaned forward to get a closer look. That’s when the second was launched, only coming to a stop because my neck got in the way.”

“Do you need medical attention?”

Newman shook his head. “Just a flesh wound.”

“Stay put,” ordered Brush, securing the assault rifle to his shoulder.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“This is a neighborhood. We’re staking out a residence. There are civilians in there. They’re not dying on my watch.”

Utilizing his night vision goggles, he took off toward the scientist’s house. Taking cover behind the enormous oak tree in the front yard, he glanced at his thermal scanner.

“I see one body near the north window, not moving. He must be the lookout,” whispered Brush. “Not for long, you bastard,” he continued, racing toward the entrance, kicking in the front door, forcing the shadowy figure to the ground.

Before he knew what had happened, the assailant had shrimped free from his grasp, removing his goggles in the process, and they were both standing toe-to-toe.

As Brush executed a right hook, the assailant effectively blocked it, locking Brush’s right knee with one leg, blocking his heel with the other, thrusting him through the coffee table, to the floor.

“Excellent judo skills,” he said, grunting as he attempted to stand. “It’s near pitch black in here. How did you even see to do that?”

Hearing the assailant closing-in, Brush executed a front thrust kick, landing a blow to her stomach.

She offered a kiai in response to the strike.

“That’s the cry of a woman,” he whispered, regaining his posture. “Let’s just talk,” he said, reaching to help her to her feet.

His guard down, she performed a kip-up, knocking him off balance, and into the wall. Continuing her attack with a powerful left hook, he absorbed the blow with his neck. Shooting his right leg between hers, he posted his right hand to the floor, extending his left leg behind hers, taking her to the ground.

Once again, effortlessly shrimping free of him, she spun around, raising her hand to strike him at the base of the skull, aiming for incapacitation. Turning just in time, he blocked her strike with his elbow, hurriedly countering with a left jab to her nose.

Desperate, she hurled the nearest table lamp in his direction. Bobbing to the right, he barely cleared it, only to be met with an outside crescent kick, knocking him, once again, to the floor.

As she closed the distance, he reached for his .45. “Enough,” he whispered, pulling back the slide.

When she walked past the window, his eyes were drawn to the letters embroidered on her wind breaker.

“CIA,” he whispered, bewildered.

“Yes, CIA.”

“I’m a part of a joint FBI-CIA taskforce.”

“Prove yourself,” she said coldly, in a thick Russian accent.

“My badge,” he replied, tossing it to her.

Using her flashlight, she briefly examined it.

“Why are you here?”

“I should ask you the same thing,” he replied, holstering his weapon before he stood.

She flipped the light switch.

Her face was bloody, cut.

“My deepest apologies for engaging you. I—”

“It is fine. You had no choice.”

“Why are you here? Who are you after?”

“The agency sent me to protect this family,” she replied, leading him to the restroom where she wet a bath towel to clean her face. “You are a formidable opponent.”

“As are you.”

“My name is Iryna Lytvynenko,” she said, extending her arm.

“Andrew Brush,” he replied, shaking her hand.

“Why are you here?”

“My team is outside. We have been watching this place since last night. We were never informed there would be an agent inside.”

“I was ordered here by my superior.”

“We were just attacked outside. The perps aren’t here?”

“I don’t understand the term perps.”

“The bad guy, the enemy.”

Iryna shook her head.

“Then, why,” he asked, his fears visible in his demeanor, his stomach in knots.

“What are you thinking?”

“It was a diversion.”

“What is diversion?”

“Dammit. That means they were planning to strike here, tonight. Somehow they made us, and needed a way out.”

“What about breach at headquarters?”

Before he could answer, his cellphone beeped. The program running on his laptop completed its analysis of the ten components, providing him a detailed breakdown.

Upon reading the results, he sprinted out the door, Agent Lytvynenko following.

“They’re headed to the sixth,” he hollered, racing across the yard to Newman. “We don’t have much time.”

“Two diversions,” asked Newman, leaning against the van, still applying pressure to his neck wound.

“Our presumption that they would strike a second house tonight was our fault, leaving the facility wide open for attack. However, we threw them off their game.”

“How so?”

“They were prepared to strike again, here. We scared them off.”

“What were you saying about the sixth, then?”

“The program I ran suggests house six to be the next target. The component that scientist is working on is the next most valuable to the completed device.”

“Let’s move,” Newman ordered, walking to the driver’s door. “And, who’s she?”

“One of yours,” replied Brush. “Agent Ly—”

“Call me Iryna,” she interrupted.

“We’ll figure this out later. For now, we need a vehicle,” said Newman. “And, these guys need medical attention.”

“You will take my car,” said Iryna, tossing her keys to Brush. “You must go, now.”

“What about the injured?”

“She can call it in,” said Newman, opening the passenger’s door. “Get your ass in the car.”

 

~

 

Weinkauf and his two guards obliged the officers without a fuss. Stepping out of their vehicle, they opened the hood and trunk before proceeding to the front of the car.

Standing with their hands at their sides while the two officers and K9 unit conducted their inspection, they listened as the officer’s whispered to one another before engaging them.

“What is your destination, Reverend Weinkauf?”

“Matamoros.”

“What is the nature of your travel?”

“I am composing an article on Mexican culture for a religious journal. I desire to immerse myself in the culture as I write.”

“I see. And, who are these two accompanying you?”

“They are my assistants.”

“Very well.”

Newman stood behind Weinkauf, gently nudging him forward as the guards motioned for them to pass. “Quit stalling,” he whispered.

“I’m not stalling,” he replied, offering the guards a brief smile. “Pay attention to the way they’re eying Brush. I think we’ve been made.”

As Weinkauf and Newman made their way back to their car, a blaring alarm was triggered.

“It’s Brush,” said Weinkauf. “They’re detaining him. He’s already in cuffs.”

Calmly removing his tactical knife from under his mat, Newman sliced open the driver’s seat, removing a silenced .45. Weapon drawn, he proceeded toward the station.

“What are you doing,” yelled Weinkauf.

“It doesn’t end like this,” he said, maintaining his course. “Come on,” he whispered. “Look at me.”

Thrust against the wall, face first, Brush was unable to make contact with Newman.

“November, Echo, Whiskey,” hollered Newman.

“Thank God,” whispered Brush, head-butting the guard behind him before executing a precision strike to his knee.

As two more guards approached Brush, weapons raised, he attempted to take cover behind the guard post.

“He is back here,” said a third guard.

“You are surrounded,” said the first.

“We should execute him right here,” said the second, cupping his nose in his hand.

“Radio it in. We are not killers.”

“Unless ordered by—”

Blood spattered onto Brush’s face as the guard dropped to the ground. Diving behind the nearest guard post, Brush watched in horror as Newman hastily eliminated the remaining threats.

“Get up,” he ordered, standing over Brush. “We have to go. Now.”

“What in the hell was that,” asked Brush, as Newman removed the cuffs.

“That was me saving your ass. Now, move.”

“Our timeline just changed,” said Brush.

“Indeed,” said Weinkauf. “I don’t think we can pull this off in less than a week. I should report you for what you did back there.”

Newman abruptly veered the car to the side of the road. “Get out,” he ordered, walking around to Weinkauf’s door.

“What are you doing?”

“Get out,” he ordered, opening the door.

“I’m good.”

Newman gripped him by his shirt collar, thrusting him into the ditch. “Let’s talk.”

“What’s the matter with you?”

Newman knelt down, pressing the barrel of his firearm against Weinkauf’s forehead. “Let’s get one thing straight, padre. We are here to retrieve an innocent girl. Lines will be crossed, collateral damage will happen. Get used to it. Embrace it. Because if you don’t, you’re going to get us all killed.”

“Thou shalt not murder.”

Newman smiled. “According to United States law, all parties involved in a murder are tried for said murder. You’re in as deep as the rest of us, Weinkauf.”

“I still don’t condone what you did back there.”

“Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t either. But, the game has changed. The timeline has changed. We strike in forty-eight hours.”

 

~

 

“Where are we going,” asked Brush, watching helplessly as Newman veered off the 5 de Mayo. “The compound is the other direction.”

“I have a local contact.”

“Listen to me. If Amber’s not alive when we do this, I—”

“Let’s cross that bridge when we get there,” replied Newman.

Brush cleared his throat. “Her retrieval is priority one. However, if that doesn’t work out, I want to blow the place to hell.”

“Absolutely.”

“Weinkauf, you on board with this,” asked Brush.

“I’m not the man I once was. If I was still with the bureau, on a sanctioned mission, perhaps.”

“We need you. If you’re just going to be dead weight, then you should consider leaving.”

“I will not arbitrarily end life. The end never justifies the means.”

“It’s not arbitrary; it’s for my daughter’s—”

Newman popped open his glove compartment. “Here,” he said, handing Weinkauf a weapon.

Weinkauf sighed. “Really?”

“No, Creampuff. It’s a tranquilizer gun.”

Brush smiled. “Well?”

“Let’s do this,” said Weinkauf.

 

~

 

“Who is this guy, again,” asked Brush.

“His name is Ferdinand Gomez,” replied Newman, pulling the car into his driveway.

“Can he be trusted?”

Newman nodded.

“Where are we, currently,” asked Weinkauf.

Campestre del Río 2,” replied Newman.

“Stay here,” he continued, exiting the vehicle, gripping his weapon. “Let me handle this.”

“Vincent, how are you,” asked Ferdinand, escorting him into his kitchen.

“Do you have my supplies,” asked Newman, lifting his shirt to make visible his firearm.

“Hey,” he replied, lifting his hands in the air. “No need for any of that. I have everything you requested.”

“Paid for, you mean.”

“Of course.”

“Lead me to it.”

“The off-road jeep is out back, under the tarp.”

“And, the van?”

“Out front. On the street.”

“The information?”

“Ah, yes,” he replied, digging in his drawer for the address. “Here you go. He will supply you with whatever weaponry you wish.”

Ejido Lucio Blanco? How far?”

“Five hours.”

 

~

“Just an observation,” said Weinkauf, “but it appears we are currently in a brothel.”
“Keep cool, Creampuff. She’s just leading us to my contact,” replied Newman.

Brush led the way as they descended into the basement. “I don’t like this,” he whispered, reaching for his firearm.

“Keep it together, guys,” he ordered, blocking Brush from gripping his weapon.

“Sancho Gonzalez,” said Newman, greeting his contact with a hearty hug.

“Mr. Vincent. It has been a very long time,” said the feeble, old man, as he guided them to his black market gun shop.

“One more stop,” asked Brush, waiting outside as Newman finished his business with Sancho.

“One more stop,” replied Newman, starting the car. “Apparently, the explosives were the most difficult to acquire.”

“Where to,” asked Weinkauf.

Zona Centro,” replied Newman. “To a café.”

 

~

 

Newman entered the café first, taking a seat at the corner table. Brush and Weinkauf strolled in a few minutes later, sitting at the table closest the exit.

Brush took a deep breath as his eyes darted from person to person, observing body language, picking up bits and pieces of conversations.

“Everyone’s talking about us,” whispered Brush, purposefully making direct eye contact with each icy glare he received.

“Well, we are the only three white people in here,” replied Weinkauf. “We’re in deep cartel territory. What did you expect? A warm welcome?”

“Your clerical collar isn’t helping.”

“And, here we go,” replied Weinkauf, the waitress heading their way.

She smiled. “I speak little English. My name is Aldoria. What can I get for you today,” she said slowly.

Weinkauf offered a brief smile. “That was very good.”

“Thank you. You wish to order drink?”

“Certainly. Please, a cup of coffee for me.”

“Same for me,” said Brush.

“Listen, we are travelling with that man over there,” said Weinkauf, pointing to Newman. “If it wouldn’t be much trouble, could you take his order next?”

She nodded. “It would be my pleasure.”

“What are you doing,” asked Brush.

“Speeding things up. This place makes me nervous.”

“Let’s see if she helps him,” said Brush, watching as the waitress approached Newman.

“Would you like to order,” she asked.

“Actually, I was hoping you could help me with something else,” Newman replied. “I’m trying to locate an acquaintance. I was told I could find her here.”

“Very well. What is her name?”

“Dorita Aldrete.”

The smile on her face quickly dissipated. Glaring into Newman’s eyes, she studied him while signaling her men to approach.

Surrounding the two tables, her men, armed with a variety of firearms, stood at attention, awaiting her order.

“What is your business with Dorita,” she asked.

Newman remained silent, subtly examining each guard, observing their weaknesses.

“Of your ten men, only three pose a threat,” he replied. “The others are just for appearances.”

“Is that so?”

“Here, let me show you,” said Newman, removing a twenty from his billfold. “You see this bill,” he asked, raising it to her eye level with his left hand.

“Yes, it is American currency. So, what?”

“It’s called a diversion,” he replied, executing a stiff right jab to her nose.

At that, Brush and Weinkauf overturned their table, backing themselves into a corner for cover.

Brush removed the 9 mm from his side holster. “Listen, I’ll go right, you go left. Just like old times.”

Weinkauf chambered a round. “What type of tranquilizer agent is loaded in this thing?”

“Depends on the model. Usually, a cocktail of various paralytic agents and sedatives. Why?”

“Nice.”

As Brush prepared to open fire, Dorita, cradling her nose in her hands, ordered a ceasefire.

“What do you want,” she asked.

“Word on the street is you have very specific merchandise for sale. It just so happens, it’s the very merchandise I’m in the market for,” replied Newman.

“Who told you this?”

“Ferdinand.”

“Very well. Follow me.”

“What was all that about,” asked Brush.

“The police have sent gringos before. I had to ensure you were not a part of them.”

They followed her into the kitchen. Opening the commercial-grade, walk-in freezer, she motioned for them to enter.

“You really expect us to go in there,” asked Weinkauf, pointing to the freezer.

“If you’re that afraid, you can watch guard, Creampuff,” said Newman, proceeding to enter the freezer.

Brush gripped her by the nape of her neck, forcing the barrel of his 9 mm against her forehead. “Ladies first.”

Brush turned to Weinkauf.

“Go. Don’t worry. I’ve got your back.”

Standing just inside the entrance, Brush and Newman watched as Dorita’s guards carefully removed a false wall, revealing a small cache of explosives.

Newman nodded. “Go ahead. Grab what you need.”

“You go. You’re the explosives expert.”

“Are you sure? This is your operation. Your daughter’s life we’re talking about.”

“If it wasn’t for you, I would be dead right now, murdered in cold blood during that transport. You’ve saved my life more times than I can count. I trust you.”

Newman nodded.

“Okay,” he said, handing Dorita a folded piece of notebook paper. “A list of what I require. Hurry. We don’t have much time.”

 

~

 

It was 4:17 a.m. The sun had yet to rise. She and sixty others were dropped at the edge of the fields, ordered to walk to their designated areas. Spotlights were scattered about, making it easy for the guards to keep track.

Handed a hoe and forced into the field by a guard, she quietly observed the others, soon following suit by hastily cutting the plants off at the ground. As the sun rose, the fields came into view, her breathe taken away by the sheer size of the coca farm.

“How did they even get this to grow here,” she mumbled to herself, as she finished her first row.

Standing up to take a breather, she was immediately met with force from the nearby guard.

“What do you think you’re doing,” he asked, pushing her into two nearby workers.

“I just finished my first row, so I was just taking a second to catch my breath.”

“No break unless I say. Now, get back to work,” he replied, storming off to address another issue.

“I’m so sorry,” whispered Amber.

“It’s ok. It’s ok,” the two replied.

As she started on another row, a girl, similar in age, approached, offering a brief smile before beginning the row in front. Ignoring her, Amber kept her eyes to the ground, only looking up when she was certain the guards were away.

Discreetly observing as much as she could, she quickly became comfortable with her surroundings, compiling enough geographical information to form an escape.

“Six guards,” she whispered to herself. “One for every ten workers. They must not feel like we’re a real threat.”

“Weapons,” she continued. “Some sort of machine guns strapped to their backs, pistols on their hips, and a bamboo rod in their hands. Heavily armed for sure.”

At eleven, they were allowed ten minutes to eat. Resting under a nearby tree, she briefly examined her plate of beans, hesitating before eating. “I’m thankful the heroine is over with and that I don’t have to become a prostitute. It could be worse.”

With her hoe in hand, she hurried back to the field before the warning shot was fired.

“It is really hot out here,” said the girl working the row in front of her.

“You aren’t kidding,” replied Amber, taking a second to smile at the girl. “Hey, do I know you?”

“Yes. I was wondering when you would notice. My name is Jasmine. I was in the—”

“You’re one of the prostitutes.”

“Yes,” she replied, lowering her head in shame.

“I’m sorry, I should be more sensitive.”

“It’s ok.”

“So, what are you doing here? Were you moved?”

“Yes,” she replied, wiping her brow. “After you left the house, many of us followed after you, trying to fight them, to escape. But, in the end, they overpowered us, forcing many of us into the fields.”

“I’m sorry. This must be much worse for you.”

“It is, much worse.”

“I am so sorry, Jasmine. You shouldn’t have—”

“No. You are my hero.”

Amber smiled.

“They tell me if I excel here, they may let me back into the house once harvest is over.”

“If we make it until harvest,” she whispered, discreetly assessing the group. “Look at these people. They’re worked to the bone and given barely enough food to live. Half of them look old enough to be my grandparents.”

“I said, no talking,” screamed a guard, approaching from the rear. “Back to work.”

“I am working,” replied Amber.

“What did you say,” he asked, removing his bamboo stick from his belt.

She straightened up to face him. “I said, I am working.”

“Turn around,” he ordered, raising his stick to strike her. “Get back to work.”

“Why? What is Carlos really going to do? Huh? I’m so sick of these empty threats. We both know he can’t touch me. Why must we play these games?”

His stick raised, he struck her on the neck, followed by a left hook, knocking her to the ground. Pinning her down, he repeatedly thrashed her.

Jasmine watched in horror as Amber screamed in agony, the guard continuing to beat her until her back was bloody and torn. Jasmine knelt down beside her, helping her to her feet, using the towel around her neck to apply pressure to her back.

“Now, get back to work,” ordered the guard.

 

~

 

Bunking together that first night, they spent most of the time in the restroom. Offering to clean her wounds, Amber accepted, resting on the floor while Jasmine ran a warm cloth over her back.

“Ow,” she whimpered. “That stings bad.”

“The pain you are feeling is probably the soap.”

“I was told we weren’t provided soap.”

“We’re not. I brought this with me when they kicked me out of the house.”

“Nice,” she replied, wincing as the warm, soapy water filled her wounds.

“How bad is it?”

“It is bad, but you will live. You will be in pain for a while, though. The wounds will repeatedly break open as you continue to work in the fields.”

Amber kept silent.

“Why are you so brave with them, when you know they will hurt you?”

“Because, I don’t plan on sticking around.”

Jasmine leaned forward. “Escape,” she whispered.

Amber nodded. “Keep your voice down.”

“You are worried about our fellow prisoners?”

“I can’t afford for anyone to blow my chance at this. I’ll only have the one.”

“I do not understand. If you are planning this, why would you not alert the others? They will want to come with you.”

“My dad is coming to get me. My escape is more or less a way to buy time. However, I will only be successful if I make it alone.”

“But, what about the rest of us? We all wish to leave. Not one of us is here voluntarily. You must take us all with you.”

“If I escape, I will bring back help. If we try to escape as a group, most of us will die.”

“I understand. What do we do, now?”

“We need to get some rest. Tomorrow’s going to be a big day.”

 

~

 

The next day’s events transpired quicker than Amber could have predicted. Out in the fields, she was hard at work when the guard from the previous day approached.

“You need to work faster,” he said, swatting his hand with the bamboo stick.

“Why don’t you give me that stick, and we’ll see who works faster,” she mumbled.

“What did you say, little girl? Juan warned me about you. He said to watch you carefully that you might try something.”

“I said, why don’t you give me that stick, and we’ll see who works faster,” she replied, turning to face him.

“One beating wasn’t enough for you. Well, perhaps I didn’t strike you hard enough. Do not worry, though, you will learn after I am finished with you.”

He raised his hand to strike her. As the bamboo stick descended toward her face, she quickly spun her hoe around, catching him in the hand, blocking the strike.

“I don’t think so.”

“You bitch,” he said, reaching for his gun.

By the time he unsnapped his holster, she had already spun the hoe back around. Bending forward on one knee, she continued spinning it, striking him midway up the calves, knocking him to the ground.

As another guard bolted toward her, she waited, thrusting the head of the hoe into his throat at the last second. Finishing the first off with a kick to his head, she sprinted toward the nearest structure.

“Carlos, the girl has escaped,” radioed a guard.

“Find her,” he ordered.

“Where?”

“You incompetent fool. Where do you think? The truck. That is her only way out. Lead her there. I will be waiting.”

Hoping she could stay hidden behind the various outbuildings until she made it to the farm truck, she kept quiet, only moving when she thought it safe.

Creeping out from behind the tool shed, a guard spotted her. Throwing a hammer at him, she took off running, glancing over her shoulder as she felt the guard closing the distance.

“There it is,” she said, the truck now within sight.

“Do you actually think you can escape from El Diablo,” said Carlos, watching this unfold through the scope of a rifle.

Maintaining her course, she suddenly stopped, the guards catching up with her, tackling her to the ground.

She was nonresponsive.

They rolled her over.

“Did you fire on her,” asked one to another.

“I did not. Did you?”

“It was me,” said Carlos, approaching in the truck, the rifle resting on his lap. “Twice.”

“You want us to load her into the truck? To take her to see Dr. Morton?”

Carlos shook his head. “Leave her.”

“But, señor, do you not require her to be alive?”

“Not anymore.”

 

12

 

The Spirit Cries Never

 

“Yeah,” hollered Joe, their van disappearing into the darkness. “That was awesome. They totally didn’t see that coming.”

“Johnny Law and his men were getting too close. We had to get some distance,” replied Stephen.

“Stay focused. We still have nine more to go. It’s going to become progressively more difficult to keep them off us,” said Grant.

“Chill, man. What we did back there will no doubt set them back for a long while,” replied Joe.

“Possibly, but they’re federal agents. Breaking into the CIA was bad enough, but murder raps for all those agents we killed. We’re screwed,” said Howard.

“I don’t think we have much to worry about,” interjected Trinity. “As long as we move swiftly, we’ll be fine.”

“I agree,” replied Grant. “The operation was nearly compromised. It was too close for comfort. We’re better than this. We’re ex-seals for God’s sake.”

“I’ll take ‘em all out myself,” said Joe. “I ain’t afraid of any of ‘em.”

Stephen concurred.

“What we don’t need is you idiots doing something stupid,” replied Trinity. “Keep your ignorant ideas to yourself.”

“Are you sure going after these components again is the right move,” asked Howard.

“The Russians apologized for what happened five years ago,” replied Grant. “We were compensated quite generously, remember?”

“It seems risky repeating the same crime.”

“I know you’re the nervous type, Howard, but this operation is a walk in the park.”

“”And, even though the government threw us under the bus with those dishonorable discharges, we’re still more skilled than these stupid cops,” interjected Joe.

“Have the other five made it back, yet,” asked Trinity.

Grant shook his head. “Not yet.”

“Paid for each part, we should be sitting real pretty when this is all over,” said Stephen.

“No doubt,” replied Howard.

 

~

 

Their next target was located in a sizable, high-end neighborhood in southeast Colorado Springs. Being a well-lit area, staying in the shadows would prove more difficult than they originally anticipated.

“There’s a damn street light in between every house,” Joe observed, as Grant drove, the team covering a five mile radius before settling one block south.

“You know the CIA is parked out front, right,” asked Stephen, “in the stupid moving van.”

Trinity rolled her eyes.

“Hey, just in case you missed it,” he continued, passing the binoculars to Howard.

“Okay,” Trinity said, unrolling the blue prints for the residence. “We will enter through the rear,” she continued, pointing to the back door. “The alley provides for quick, unnoticeable access in-and-out.”

“What do we know about the house,” asked Howard. “Interior schematics, I mean.”

Trinity offered Grant the floor.

“It’s a fairly new house, built four years ago,” Grant said, providing this information from memory. “A two story with sky-blue vinyl siding and a wrought iron fence surrounding the perimeter. So, watch yourself.”

“Sky-blue siding,” asked Joe. “Really?”

“Yeah, sky-blue. So, your dumbass doesn’t enter the wrong house, again.”

“Continue,” said Stephen. “What else?”

“The four and a half car garage does provide some cover for us, as it blocks the visibility of a few first floor windows, and possibly one second.”

“The others are here,” said Trinity, sliding open the van door. “Let’s move.”

Advancing toward the residence at breakneck speed, the nine man team covertly approached the door.

Startled by the random slamming of a car door, Howard dropped his lock pick. “Was that the police? We’re done. They’ve caught us.”

“Dammit, Howard,” whispered Trinity. “No one caught anybody. Would you just grow a pair, already?”

“Why don’t you just use your sidearm,” asked Grant.

“You know I don’t like that thing,” Howard replied, reaching underneath the shrubbery for his lock pick.

“You ain’t got a choice, idiot,” said Stephen.

Howard shook his head.

“Joe. Go check the van,” ordered Grant. “I want eyes on the CIA. We need to know if they get spooked.”

“Isn’t that what our dummy driver is for,” he asked.

“No, Joe. Our driver is parked out back. How could he possibly have eyes on the CIA van out front?”

“Gotcha,” he replied, disappearing to the front.

Just as they were preparing to enter the house, Joe returned.

“Well,” asked Grant.

“All clear boss,” he replied, out of breath.

“Excellent. Let’s move.”

 

~

 

“I can’t believe she drives this piece of crap,” said Newman. “I feel like a sardine.”

“How’s your neck?”

“It finally quit bleeding, but I still can’t hear out of this ear,” he replied, rotating his jaw.

“Well, the way I see it—”

“Shut-up. It’s your director,” said Newman, flipping open the phone to answer.

“My father-in-law?

“That’s the one,” he replied, right before answering.

“Director Gorman. Hello, sir.”

“What in the hell is going on over there? I just got my ass chewed by the attorney general who’s blaming me for a failed operation I know nothing about.”

“Upon discovering the perp’s next target, we were ambushed. It was minor, acting only as a diversion. Since then, we have recovered, and are in pursuit as we speak.”

“This is borderline unsanctioned, agent. Your ducks had better be in a row before you execute. Otherwise, I will back away and let the attorney general have at it.”

“He’s that pissed, huh?”

“He’s in the mood to bury you right now.”

“Put it on speaker,” said Brush.

Newman nodded.

“Sir, Agent Brush here. We have uncovered the order in which the perps are planning to retrieve the components. It’s based on complexity.”

“Take the phone off speaker, Andy.”

“Can’t do that, sir. I’m driving.”

“Fine. The order has come down. You’re off the case.”

“What are you talking about? Come down from whom? The president? The attorney general?”

“Me. I just got off the phone with SSA Basin.”

“Okay?”

“He informed me the CIA requested your assistance with an old case. They wished to conduct an interview.”

“Right.”

“Then, I called Newman’s supervisor. It seems he was authorized only to interview you for a preliminary investigation into these homicides. Nothing more.”

“We’re following the case. What else matters?”

“It’s a federal and local jurisdictional nightmare. Until the CIA can figure out whether to pursue this case or not, our involvement is officially over.”

“You can’t be serious. Newman and I are pulling up to the house the killers are targeting next. How can you tell me to walk away when innocent lives are on the line?”

“Agent Brush, you are not authorized to be on this case. Neither is Newman. According to the CIA, there is not even a case. He is acting alone, without orders. You will stand down immediately.”

“If the agents parked out front leave, it could spook the perps, risking everything. Is it really worth it?”

“Let the CIA worry about that.”

Brush paused.

You there, Brush?”

“No, sir.”

“Excuse me?”

“With all due respect, sir. I will see this through.”

“You understand you are disregarding a direct order from the Director of the FBI.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied, disconnecting the line.

 

~

 

Pulling over at the last intersection before the residence, Newman instructed Brush on how to proceed. Uncertain of how cautious the perps were, they cleared a three block radius before continuing on.

Driving at a steady ten miles per, they both intently observed each house, in hopes of spotting an out of place vehicle, or signs of unusual activity.

“Maybe they’re further out,” said Brush, breaking the silence.

“Maybe, but I don’t think so. You said, their personalities dictated their level of caution, that arrogance would consume them.”

“I know, but it’s not an exact science.”

“Turn your headlights back off, what are you doing?”

“Did you see that van? It’s hidden in that alley back there,” he said, speeding passed inconspicuously.

“Turn around and go by it again.”

“Well?”

“Indiscernible, black van parked in an alleyway one block from the residence, partially concealed behind heavy shrubbery. I think so. Let’s check it out. Park here.”

“Do we assume they have a getaway driver? I mean, they’re not really concerned with time. The other crimes suggest they feel invisible.”

“The stakes are raised. They have a driver.”

Brush exited the car first. Met by the cold, bracing wind, he raised his jacket collar to cover his neck. Awaiting Newman’s signal, he disappeared into the darkness.

“Follow my lead,” he whispered, exiting the car, stumbling into the street, mumbling to himself.

Advancing to within five meters of the van, Newman tripped, catching himself by grabbing hold of the stop sign. He turned to face the van. Extending his right hand over his head in a fist was the signal.

Crouched down, Brush crept up behind the van. Knowing he had only ten seconds to execute his attack, he quietly removed his tranquilizer gun from his ankle holster before panning the area one last time. With Newman out of sight, and no sign of the seal team, he clicked off the safety and rushed up to the driver’s window.

Fries flew everywhere, the burger dropped, as the startled driver frantically reached across the seat where his gun and radio sat. Before he could depress the push-to-talk, Brush, using his elbow, smashed through the window and nervously shot three times, hitting him once in the neck and once in the stomach.

With the guard down, he whistled for Newman. Securing the driver with zip ties, Newman browsed through their supplies.

“Ok, he’s tied up, and I have his radio,” Brush said, as he joined Newman.

“Perfect. Oh, I saw the dart in the ceiling. Did the van assault you, too, or do we need to work on your aim?”

“Very funny, shut up.” Using his flashlight, he briefly examined the blankets and crates in the back. Find anything we can use?”

Newman chuckled. “Come look at this, there’s a whole box of tear gas grenades, but no gun.”

Brush uncovered another crate and popped it open. “Here,” he said, handing Newman an XM148 grenade launcher, “see if they fit.”

“Wow that is old. I mean, Vietnam war old.”

“Can we use it?”

“Damn straight we can use it,” Newman said, as he loaded the steel canister into the barrel. Shoving two more into his side pocket, he hung the gas mask around his neck. “This is probably going to get ugly. Are you prepared?”

“Yes, sir. Let’s do this.”

 

~

 

Being a modern take on a Victorian style home, it definitely stood out from others on the block. Staying true to the architectural techniques that once made the style famous, it beamed with beauty.

The weathered, textured shingles were barely visible in the night sky, but were of a grayish brown pastel, matching perfectly with the maroon colored eaves. The decorative white lattice covering part of the second story balcony extended to the top corners of the front porch.

A row of pastel blue siding wrapped around the house like a belt, separating the first floor from the second. The large, asymmetrical porch wrapped all the way around the west side of the house, stopping at the back window.

Flowers adorned every tree and statue, light pole and shrub, following both sidewalks. Climbing roses filled the lattice on each side of the entranceway.

Brush shined his flashlight on the door lock. “It’s broken. They pulled the door to, but the trim is splintered.”

“Turn that off. What the hell are you doing,” Newman asked, forcing Brush’s arm down.

“Just analyzing the situation, getting a look at what we’re up against.”

“With a flashlight, at night? Do you want them to spot us?”

“A bird wouldn’t be alarmed by this light if I shined it right at it, it’s that dim. I think it’s like a five watt,” he replied, stuffing it into his pocket. “You’re so paranoid, I swear.”

“Well, I apologize for wanting to stay alive while we actively hunt for, and prepare to enter the residence of a scientist who’s being targeted by a rogue seal team.”

“You done?”

Newman shook his head. “You’re like talking to a brick wall sometimes.”

“Funny, I often imagine that’s what your ex-wife said to you right before she kicked you out.

“Oh, so are you my shrink, now?”

“There’s not enough money in the world.”

Newman shook his head as he unstrapped the grenade launcher from around his neck.

“That is for them, right?”

“Don’t temp me.”

“So, where first?”

“Well, being that there are only two windows back here, our choices are limited. The window upstairs is most likely a bedroom, which wouldn’t do us much good.”

“It would be a nice distraction.”

“True, but we need more. I want them to feel the pain.”

“The window here looks like it leads into the kitchen, or maybe a dining area. It’s your call, but I think I would crack open the door and shoot them as far inside as I could.”

“Better chance of them hearing, and being exposed before they take cover. I think that may work.”

Securing the gas mask over his face, he approached the door. Crouched down, he positioned himself against the door frame.

“Listen, Newman. We don’t know how many are in there. Watch yourself. The profile five years ago indicated three murderers, but if they were looking for something, chances are there were more.”

Newman nodded.

“It’s a big house with a lot of rooms. Once inside, let’s split up. I’ll take the ground floor. You head upstairs. We’ll converge at the basement.”

 

~

 

“Do we have everything,” asked Brush, tossing the duffle into the trunk.

Newman nodded. “Just one more stop.”

“Where too,” asked Weinkauf.

“I think we should get a glimpse of El Diablo.”

“You want to travel to their headquarters? Now? We have done extensive research, mapping. The logistics are all there. What more do we need?”

“Newman’s right, Weinkauf. It wouldn’t hurt to take it all in one time before we strike.”

“Okay,” he said, sitting back in his seat. “Not a good idea, but whatever.”

After heading east on Av Lauro Villar for just over an hour, they hit the Gulf of Mexico. Taking a gravel road twelve miles down the coast, they turned onto a dirt road, traveling an additional three miles before Brush suddenly slammed on his breaks, veering onto the grass.

“This is it,” he said, stepping out of the jeep. “Six miles of blacktop is all that stands between me and my daughter.”

“We will retrieve her,” said Weinkauf, joining Brush at the front of the vehicle.

“Damn right we will,” he replied, his boiling rage visible in his eyes.

“We got company,” yelled Newman, surveying the area with binoculars. “My guess is the cartel has cameras hidden in the tree line.”

“How many? How far?”

“Two suburban types. No telling how many inside. Probably eight per, so sixteen.”

“Is there another way out of here?”

“This is deep cartel territory,” said Weinkauf. “The way we came is the best, but—”

“If you can’t tell,” interrupted Newman, “that’s no longer an option. Unless you want to play chicken with that,” he said, pointing to the approaching vehicles.

Weinkauf sighed. “In that case, we can head west for about two miles before reaching a dead end. At that point, we can stand and fight, or make a break through the fields.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Brush replied, bolting for the jeep.

“Not so fast,” said Newman, removing his Beretta M9 from his back holster.

“What’s going on? Did you see someone?”

“We’re waiting for Carlos,” he said, aiming his weapon at Brush. “Now, move to the jeep, place your hands on the hood.”

“No,” he whispered. “Not—But—No.”

“I’m afraid so, kid,” he said, gesturing for Brush to do as he was told.

“I don’t understand. You sent the sheriff, broke me out, forged my papers, murdered those border patrol.”

He pointed to the jeep. “You used your contacts to gather weapons, plastic explosives, this jeep. I don’t understand.”

“It’s a story as old as time, kid. After our first case together, you know the one, my career took a nosedive.”

“As did mine, but I got back on the horse anyway.”

“You always were commendable, kid. As I was saying, blackballed, I began searching out revenue streams consistent with what I was best at. It just so happened, Carlos offered the most.”

“You sold out for money?”

“You make it sound so dirty. It’s not. It’s life. It’s retirement. It’s respect, something the CIA knows nothing about.”

Brush turned.

“Don’t try anything stupid. As you can see, they’ll be here in less than a minute. Just do as I say.”

Brush nodded. Approaching the jeep, he placed his hands on the hood. Hearing a loud pop, he quickly turned, his weapon drawn.

“Drop it,” ordered Newman.

“You shot the pastor,” he asked, watching as Weinkauf struggled to stand.

“He came at me. He’ll be fine. It’s only a shoulder shot. Now, turn back around and assume the position.”

“No.”

“Excuse me?”

“No. Kill me. Right now,” he screamed.

“The standing order is to take you alive.”

“Really? So, what? You got pissed at the CIA for mistreating you, but you have no problem being Carlos’ little bitch?”

“That’s enough,” he shouted, advancing toward Brush. “I will not do this. You are done, Brush. You need to accept that you failed, that you and your daughter will die together.”

“There’s one little aspect you’re forgetting,” he said, raising his finger. “Just one.”

“What’s that?”

“You gave the reverend a tranquilizer gun.”

He paused. Staring quizzically, he cradled his neck, the paralytic from the round penetrating his carotid artery.

“I—”

He dropped to the ground.

Brush stood shocked.

“Hurry,” said Weinkauf, hopping into the passenger’s seat. “They’re nearly here. We must go, now.”

Leaving Newman on the side of the road, Brush and Weinkauf sped off, taking the two mile route.

“This is a dead end,” yelled Brush.

“I know,” replied Weinkauf, wincing as he carefully removed his suit jacket.

“How’s your shoulder?”

“It went straight through. I’ll be fine. How about yourself? What happened back there—”

“I’m fine,” he replied, his eyes on the rearview mirror. “Just tell me where to go.”

“In about a quarter mile, the road ends.”

“You studied the geography. What are our options? This doesn’t end here. Not like this.”

“I suggest we stand and fight.”

Brush broke his gaze on the mirror. “Seriously? This coming from the man who refuses to carry a firearm?”

“Look, they’re blocking the only exit. If we continue into the fields, we’re toast. There’s no cover. If we ditch the jeep and disappear into the woods, we’ll be hunted by their several hundred guards.”

“Enough,” ordered Brush. “I get it.”

“What we lack in manpower, we gain in firepower,” he said, reaching for the duffle bags.

“You’re on board with this? Because, if not, I quit. I can’t do this without you, Weinkauf.”

“Newman betrayed us, fired on me. We’re being hunted. The way I see it, it’s self-defense.”

Brush smiled. “Thank you.”

“Let’s be clear. We aim to incapacitate, not kill. Self-defense is not a license to murder. It is merely permission to return fire.”

“Understood.”

 

~

 

“Where’s Brush?”

“The damn pastor got the jump on me,” said Newman, standing to his feet.

“I do not understand.”

“The pastor, Carlos. The third man. I was so concerned with Brush, I didn’t expect him to react like that. I even shot the bastard.”

“Brush is injured?”

“No, the pastor. I mean, yeah, Brush is injured, but not from me.”

“Where are the weapons? The explosives?”

“In the jeep.”

“Fantastic. Not only did you lose Brush, but you let him escape with enough firepower to blow my headquarters to hell.”

“You worry too much,” he replied, leaning against the suburban, his legs still wobbly from the paralytic.

“Is that so?”

Newman nodded. “They may have the weaponry, but I fed them the plan.”

 

~

 

Lupe and Esmeralda rushed out of their rooms. Racing down the stairs, they were abruptly stopped by one of the guards.

“Where do you think you’re going,” he asked, smiling at Lupe, his attention on her.

“We are running late to our appointments,” interjected Esmerelda. “Let us out.”

“I don’t know of any appointments this afternoon,” he replied, skimming the girl’s schedule on his clipboard.

Esmerelda whispered to Lupe as the guard focused on his detailed spreadsheet.

“Nope, I definitely don’t see anything for either of you girls,” he replied. “So, I’m going to have to ask you to return to your dorms.”

“I refuse to keep my client waiting,” said Esmerelda, squeezing past him into the entryway.

The second guard extended his arm, effectively blocking her exit.

“Do you wish to be responsible to Carlos for me standing up his client? How about when he calls, embarrassing Carlos in front of his family?”

The guard stern demeanor weakened.

Esmerelda leaned in. “I hear he once killed a guard for holding up a deal.”

“If this is so, then why is the transport not here to escort you to the car,” asked the second guard.

“I do not know, maybe he is on the toilet. Why does it matter? Let us through.”

By this time, Lupe was sitting on the first guards lap, whispering into his ear. Upon sharing a kiss, she abruptly stood, leaving him wanting more.

Straightening her skirt and jewelry, she reapplied her lipstick before addressing them.

“When we come back, maybe I will take you both upstairs,” she replied, running her fingers through his hair.

“Do not be gone long,” he replied.

“We won’t, baby.”

“You’re letting them go,” asked the second guard.

“Did you not hear the woman? She said they have appointments. Have you not seen Carlos angry? Plus, she is going to take us upstairs later.”

“You fool. It is your ass if this goes wrong.”

 

~

 

As soon as the guards were out of sight, they ditched their heels, hurrying down the dirt road and through the fields, stopping only when they reached the bunk house.

Jasmine was waiting for them just inside the door. Seeing them coming, she cracked open the door, peaking her head out as they drew closer.

“I did not know who else to go to, Es,” cried Jasmine.

“It’s ok. Tell me what happened,” asked Esmeralda.

“Earlier today she fought two guards and got free. Then, Carlos shot her twice, leaving her for dead. Please help her,” she sobbed.

“Are you sure she is still alive,” asked Lupe.

“Yes, I have been checking her heartbeat every few minutes. I am unable stop the bleeding and I think she has a fever.”

“Here is what we will do,” replied Lupe.

 

~

 

“What are you doing back so soon,” asked the first guard, racing to meet her as she pranced her way up the walk. “And, where is Esmeralda?”

“She is not far behind. She had lady things to attend to.”

“You know to always walk in pairs. That is Carlos’ order. And, what happened to your appointment?

“How would I know? I guess he just canceled on me,” she replied, offering an empty frown.

“I would never cancel on you, Lupe,” he replied, walking her to the door.

“I do not believe her,” said the second guard. “Last minute cancelations are rare. No one cancels mere minutes before. The charge is non-refundable.”

“Well,” she said, delicately climbing the staircase, “why don’t we head to my room and see what I can do to change your mind,” she continued, dropping her dress to the floor.

With both guards otherwise occupied, Esmerelda checked the lobby once more before signaling Jasmine to enter with Amber. One on either side, they wrapped her arms around their necks, struggling to get her down to the doctor’s office.

Hiding the girl’s in the custodial closet, Esmerelda limped into Dr. Morton’s office. “Dr. Morton, I am so sorry to bother you this late, but I think I hurt myself,” she said, taking a seat on the hospital bed.

“Well, it is rather late,” he replied, glancing down at his watch, “but that’s ok. It’s what I’m here for. So, what’s the matter,” he asked, smiling.

“I think it’s my hip. Will you take a look?”

“Of course, just show me where it hurts.”

“The pain is coming from right here,” she replied, lifting up her skirt. “Do you feel that,” she asked, gently grabbing his hand, holding it to her backside.

“Well, I uh, I’m afraid I don’t feel anything out of the ordinary there, hun,” he replied, clearing his throat.

“How about here,” she replied, moving his hand to her chest.

“You know, I do think I felt something on your backside. If you don’t mind, please step into the back room here, and I’ll take a closer look.”

“Thank you, doctor,” she replied, leading him away.

Once in the exam room, Jasmine laid Amber on the table. Breathing a quiet sigh of relief, she jammed a chair under the doorknob before turning on the light.

“God help me,” she prayed, crossing herself.

Aware of the time restraint, she hurriedly familiarized herself with the room. Finding the scissors, she cut Amber’s shirt, gently removing it, revealing the gunshot wounds.

“You know, my madre was murdered when I was just a girl. Before she died, she taught be how to sow and cook and nurse my little hermanos back to health. They were always fighting, coming home with cuts and sometimes involved in stabbings.

“After she died, my padre went after the men responsible, much like your padre is doing for you. He was gone for an entire week, and when he came back, he had many injuries. It was the first time I ever removed a bullet. If he hadn’t talked me through it, I don’t think I could’ve done it. But, I did and he lived. I pray you will too.”

Gripping the surgical forceps in her right hand, she delicately inserted the biologie tip into the chest wound. Securing the spent round on the first try, she proceeded with the extraction.

Releasing it into the trash, she went in for the abdominal round when she noticed a significant amount of blood seeping from the table.

“What have I done,” she asked, dropping the forceps onto the floor. In a panic, she inserted her left hand between the table and Amber, feeling for the source.

“A through-and-through,” she whispered, breathing a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank God. Now, let’s get these cleaned up,” she continued, searching through the supplies for the peroxide.

Amber woke screaming as Jasmine poured it into her wounds. “It is okay,” she whispered. “Stay calm. You were shot.”

“Ow,” she moaned, observing Jasmine stitch her chest wound. “How did that not kill me?”

“It appears the bullet grazed a few ribs before coming to rest just beneath the surface. You are very lucky.”

“My stomach?”

“It went all the way through.”

“That’s good, right?”

Jasmine shook her head. “It must be cauterized.”

“Can’t we just—”

“You will continue to bleed internally. We must do this,” she replied, reaching for a jar.

“How?”

She emptied the jar onto a tray. “Gunpowder.”

 

~

 

“You stay here,” ordered Dr. Morton. “I’m just gonna grab my special bottle,” he said, exiting the backroom, heading for the exam room.

She hopped off the crate, racing in front of him. “Let me get it,” she said, gently running her hands down his bare chest. “I would not want the good doctor to get too busy. Now, would I?”

“When a woman’s right, she’s right,” he chuckled. “It’s in the bottom drawer to the right of the sink. You can’t miss it.”

“What are you still doing here,” Esmerelda asked, forcing her way into the room.

“Leaving now,” replied Amber.

Using Jasmine as her support, they inconspicuously exited the facility through the basement access door, breaking for the bunk house.

“Slow down,” Amber cried. “I need a second,” she said, falling to her knees.

“We must go,” replied Jasmine, reaching to lift Amber to her feet. “I must return to my room soon. Lupe can only be with those two for so long. They will return to their posts.”

 

~

 

That next morning at four sharp, the guards burst through the doors of the bunk house, screaming, beating the walls with their bamboo rods.

The startled workers began stumbling out of bed.

“Get up,” one guard ordered to still sleeping Amber.

When she didn’t acknowledge, his anger intensified.

“I said, get up,” he repeated, smacking the cot frame with his rod. “Now.”

Still non-responsive, he proceeded to strike her on the shins, before jerking back the blanket, revealing her injuries.

“Benito,” he said, turning to face his partner, “get Carlos on the line. Tell him to get down here pronto. He is going to want to see this.”

 

~

 

“You fools interrupted a very important meeting,” said Carlos, following his men into the bunk house. “This better be good.”

“It is bad, Carlos.”

“Do share,” he ordered.

“The girl you killed yesterday. The one who attempted an escape?”

“I killed a few girls yesterday, but I remember. You are referring to the agent’s daughter?”

“Yes, sir. It appears she survived.”

“Pardon me?”

“Let us show you,” he said, leading Carlos to her cot. “Someone must have attended to her wounds. She appears to be in decent shape considering we left her for dead.”

Resting his finger under her nose, he then checked for a pulse. Taken aback, he stood silent.

“Line the workers up,” he ordered. “Now.”

“Who did this,” he screamed, pacing the hallway, workers lining both sides.

“Let me start again,” he said, offering an empty smile. “I apologize for raising my voice. The girl still lying in this bed received unauthorized medical attention sometime within the last ten hours.

“By the looks of the bandages, I would conclude she was treated by Dr. Morton. However, I did not order any such treatment. If any of you wish to come forward, now would be the time, the penalty being far greater if I have to uncover the whole truth myself.”

Jasmine stood silent, her eyes to the floor.

13

 

Out of Time

 

With his M15 Carbine assault rifle in hand, ready for fire, Brush knelt down, positioning himself, awaiting Newman’s signal. Just as Newman was about to shoot the first canister, a voice came through on his radio.

“Spitting Cobra, come in.”

Disgusted, Newman balanced his weapon in one hand, while reaching for his radio. “This is Spitting Cobra. Why are you doing radioing me during a raid? Are you trying to get me killed, Forest One?”

“You are ordered to retreat immediately. Do not engage. I repeat, do not engage.”

“Going radio silent,” he said, dropping the radio into a bucket of water beside the garage.

“What are you doing?”

“Another blunder like that could cost us everything. I’m not putting my life in their hands.”

“Except that now, we’re cut off.”

“We’ve got this.”

“I hope you’re right,” he replied, shaking his head.

“You hear that,” asked Newman, putting his mask back on.

“Barely, were those screams?”

“Look,” he said pointing to the upper window.

“Lights, I guess now we know where to shoot.”

As the screams became louder, they knew they had to act fast. Unsure that they would succeed with a blunt force attack, Brush had come up with another plan.

“We don’t have time to argue about this,” whispered Newman. “I’m going to shoot the first canister through the second story window, and the other two through the front window, end of discussion.”

“Just listen to me for a second. Since we took the tear gas from their van, it’s more than likely they used it on the victims.”

“Which means they have masks.”

“Possibly, that’s why I want to cut the power.”

“But, since we left the night vision goggles at the other house, we would be going in completely blind.”

“You said the CIA installed backup generators in the scientist’s homes, right?”

“Yeah, it had something to do with the nature of their work and the design of the safe. In the event of a power loss, the generator kicks in within fifteen minutes.”

“So, that gives us fifteen minutes.”

“Correct, but if they’re equipped with goggles, we’ll be dead in two.”

Brush pulled out his knife to open the electrical box.

“Oh, what the hell. You ready?”

Brush nodded.

Settling into position, Newman gave the signal. As Brush killed the lights, Newman shot the canisters through the windows. Tossing the empty weapon onto the ground and grabbing his M15, he followed Brush into the house.

The hallway was narrow. Their stealth-like movements brought to light by their continuous collisions with mounted shelves lining the walls.

Worried they may have wasted the shots, they swiftly moved through the hall and into the pantry. Upon clearing the room, they discovered the canister had landed in the living room. Before continuing on, Newman directed Brush to head upstairs.

“No, you take the upstairs.”

Newman shook his head. “Go.”

Clearing the first bedroom on his way to the kitchen, Newman quickly approached the living room. With the room still full of tear gas, he slowed his pace.

“What was that,” he whispered, turning back to the kitchen.

As he approached the counter, he noticed a man bent over the sink, trying desperately to wash out his eyes. Continuing forward, he stayed undetected until he was less a foot from the man.

Raising his weapon to strike the man at the base of his skull, an arm reached around the right side of his neck. His peripheral diminished from the mask, he was unable to detect his presence until it was too late.

With a struggle underway, Newman tried his best to escape the chokehold, but the assailant’s grip was too perfect. Not willing to go down without a fight, and with only seconds left before he faded into unconsciousness, he swung the butt of his gun over his head, striking the assailant, catching him off guard.

Stumbling back, the assailant’s grip weakened, Newman twisted himself free. Toe-to-toe with Newman, the assailant lunged at him. Seeing it coming, Newman quickly knelt down, reaching for his knife.

Before he was able to remove it from its sheath, he was knocked unconscious from behind, his limp body dragged to the backroom.

“It’s Joe, right,” asked the gun for hire.

“Yeah, that’s right,” he replied, as he rummaged through the drawers looking for pain killers.

“So, where do you want me to put him,” he asked, dragging Newman by his arms.

“Just drop him right there. Grant will be down soon to do the rest.”

“But, what if he wakes up?”

“Then, I guess you better tie him to that chair, then, huh.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The stupid bastard. I oughta kill him now,” he mumbled, rubbing the top of his head.

“What?”

“Nothing. Hurry up. Move.”

 

~

 

His back against the wall, Brush slowly turned the corner, gradually ascending the staircase. With each step, the wood beneath him creaked. As he made it to the third step, he paused, turning off his flashlight. The steps telegraphing my flight is enough, he thought. I don’t need the flashlight announcing my every move.

More nervous than he had ever been in his whole life, he wiped the sweat from his brow before softly continuing on. His heart pounded harder, his perspiration increased as thoughts of ambush weighed on his mind. His gloves were the only thing keeping his gun from sliding out of his hands and he knew it.

He paused again at step eight of twenty. Far enough up to be able to catch a useful view, he positioned himself against the banner, using his flashlight to examine the second floor.

In place of a traditional banner running along the hallway, a half-length wall met the door to the right of the stairs. It was closed. Breathing a sigh of relief, he kept going, this time at a slightly more hurried pace.

With only three steps remaining, the notion struck him to skip to the top, but not wanting to get ahead of himself, sacrificing balance and aim, he kept his pace.

The sweat still rolling down his face, he paused long enough to wipe his forehead with his arm. Close enough to the top to no longer be concerned about being spotted, he turned on the flashlight, checking behind him before taking another step.

Not sure if it was the exceptionally loud noise, the faint light, or that maybe he had been watched the entire time, but something felt off. Keeping his calm, he ensured his balance was strong before reaffirming his grip.

Briefly closing his eyes, he turned. Firing four rounds into the wall below, he nervously panned his light around, exposing the darkness, attempting to spot the assailant. There was no one.

Just when he thought it was all in his head, a shot came out of nowhere, thrusting him onto his back, the sheer force of the bullet enough to take his breath away. The sudden pain in his side confirmed he had indeed been hit below the vest.

Scrambling for cover, he threw himself up the stairs and into the nearby bedroom. Slamming the door behind him, he quickly jammed a chair under the doorknob. Sitting on the desk, out of the line of fire, with his gun in one hand, aimed at the door, he cradled his side in agony.

Not sure if he had been followed up the stairs, he waited. When he was sure he was safe for the time being, he sat his gun down, limping to the restroom.

Both hands on the wound, he applied pressure, opening the already ajar door with his foot. Blood dripped from his hand as he felt around for the light switch. Based on the amount of pain he was in, he was confident the bullet went straight through. Gently touching his back, he felt for the exit wound.

Finally locating the switch, he flipped it on, only to discover a figure emerging from the closet, knocking him into the desk. Grabbing his firearm, he tried to get a shot off before the assailant latched onto him, hurling him to the ground.

He held Brush down as he straddled him. Quickly maneuvering to his side, Brush made it more difficult to be struck. Inadvertently exposing his wounded side, he tried to switch. The grip was too strong, he was stuck. As he tried to squirm loose, the assailant’s grip tightened around his sides, causing him to scream in pain.

“Why don’t you get off of me, fight me like a man,” he asked, his voice trailing off into a painful whisper.

“Nah, I prefer it this way,” replied Stephen, countering Brush’s left jab with a right hook.

He felt as though he was being repeatedly struck in the face with cinder block. Unable to see it coming made it much worse. Finally discerning the pattern to Stephen’s striking, he raised his right forearm, successfully blocking the incoming elbow strike.

“You hit like my—,” replied Brush, interrupted by yet another right hook, his eye taking the brunt of it.

“Just shut up and tell me where the others are and I won’t have to kill you,” he said, lifting Brush by his shirt, only to force him back to the floor.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” replied Brush, spitting blood onto his shirt. “I’m alone.”

Stephen struck him again, this time cutting his face. “You’re telling me the van outside isn’t CIA or FBI or something?”

“That’s what I’m telling you,” Brush replied, resting his head on the floor.

“You must take me for a real fool.”

“No.”

Restraining Brush’s head to the floor, Stephen gripped his throat. “Now, listen, boy. You’re gonna tell me where all you friends are, or you’re gonna die, right now. Your choice.”

“Go to hell,” he whispered, attempting to pry Stephen’s fingers from around his neck.

“Not before you,” he whispered, watching as Brush’s eyes rolled into the back of his head, and his body fell limp.

“Just to be sure,” said Stephen, executing a backhand strike. “That boy’s out.”

He stood to leave. “Well, while I’m here, I may as well pilfer,” he said, bending over to steal Brush’s weapons.

As he reached around to the small of his back, Brush, having already unlatched his knife during the fight, forced it into Stephen’s left inner thigh and twisted.

With the knife protruding out the other side, Stephen screamed, immediately trying to pull it out. But, before he could get a grip on the knife, Brush jerked it out, leaned forward, and stabbed him in the side of the neck.

Pushing the corpse aside, he struggled to his feet. Exhausted, he hobbled once again to the bathroom, this time with his gun in hand. Using his knife, he cut the shower curtain into a makeshift bandage, tightly securing it around the gunshot wound.

Worried Stephen’s screaming alerted other members of his team, Brush cleared the upstairs office and second bedroom as quickly as he could. Briefly leaning against the wall, he rested.

Every movement irritated the hole in his side. The burning sensation radiating from the entrance wound proved more of an annoyance than anything. It was the exit wound that was responsible for the sharp, raging pain felt throughout his entire torso.

“I can do this,” he whispered, slamming his fist into the wall. “These bastards will not get away. Not this time.”

He limped to the window. Creating a barely visible slit in the blind, he made a visual on the team outside.

“I can’t believe this. I’m dying in here and the CIA is ten feet away,” he whispered, “figures.”

A sudden noise broke the silence of the second floor. It was subtle, but present. Someone was in the hallway headed toward the office. Needing the element of surprise, hoping it would garner him the upper hand, Brush kicked the door open and rushed into the hall.

“You are still alive,” said one of the hired guns.

“I am, but I can’t say the same about the guy in there,” he replied, pointing to the bedroom. “I kind of stabbed him in the neck, shredding his esophagus.”

“How are you holding up after I shot you? I thought I would find you dead up here.”

“Sorry to disappoint.”

They both stared at one another, waiting for the other to initiate offensive action. The unnamed gunman dropped his assault rifle and reached for his pistol. Without hesitation, Brush charged him, thrusting him into the wall, repeatedly slamming his hand into the mirror until his pistol fell to the floor.

With his mind so focused on the firearm, he failed to realize he left himself wide open. The assailant, taking advantage of the opportunity, began striking Brush in the stomach near the entrance wound. After three successive bursts, Brush released him, doubling over, the pain all encompassing, overwhelming his body and mind.

“You’re really injured, aren’t you,” the assailant asked. Gripping Brush by the shirt collar, he forced him to the edge of the stairs. “Sayonara, asshole,” he said, preparing to thrust him down the staircase.

Briefly opening his eyes, Brush smiled. “Monkey flip,” he whispered.

As the assailant shoved Brush down the stairs, he didn’t resist, instead, he snatched ahold of the assailant’s shirt, placed his foot in his pelvis, and flipped him over head. They both tumbled down the stairs.

“Two down,” he said, checking for a pulse.

Back on his feet, he turned toward the kitchen. With Newman nowhere in sight, and no bodies on the floor, he grew concerned. Maybe he’s hiding the bodies to maintain the element of surprise, he thought.

He quietly laid his M15 down in the kitchen, removing his .45 from his side holster. Abruptly turning toward the living room, he knelt down, firing two rounds into the sofa. I could’ve sworn someone was there, he thought.

His paranoia raging, he hastily cleared the living and dining rooms before turning the corner, entering a hall that led to the back two bedrooms, laundry room, and guest restroom.

Stumbling upon a conversation, he took cover behind a nearby china cabinet. When he could no longer hear anyone conversing, he continued down the corridor.

Suddenly, and without provocation, a blade sliced down the back of his right arm before being plunged through his shoulder.

He turned to face his assailant.

“Walk away, lawman.”

“Can’t do that,” said Brush, firing a round into the assailant’s foot.

“What the hell,” he replied, forcing Brush’s arm off center, striking him with a spear hand to the throat, followed by a side thrust kick to the upper chest, driving him to the floor.

“You must be Joe,” he said, straining to stand.

“Now, how the hell would you know that?”

“Your profile says you have superb martial arts skills, a particular obsession with aikido.

“Kudos on the knife skills, though. I didn’t see that coming,” he replied, removing the blade from his shoulder.

“Enough with the chit chat,” Joe said, raising his firearm. “Move.”

“Why waste a bullet on me? How about we fight like real men?”

Joe smiled. “Really? You think you can take me?”

“I guess you’ll never know just how much of a loser you really are. I mean, I’m dead either way. You’re the one who has to live with that fact that you’re a nincompoop.”

“You’d be dead already if most of my men weren’t making the hostages talk and working the safe.”

“Your men? You and I both know Grant’s in charge, and you’re just one of his little helpers.”

“I’m gonna enjoy knockin’ your block clean off your neck.”

“Just shut up and fight,” Brush replied, holstering his weapon.

Tossing his weapon onto the washing machine, Joe entered into his fighting stance.

Brush followed suit, sinking down into the horse stance, reluctantly transitioning in the cat stance, the sharp pain in his side affecting his posture.

“Ma Bu and Xuán Jī Bù? Really? Is that the best you got,” asked Joe.

“You know kung-fu?”

“A little. Enough to know that aikido kicks its ass.”

“We’ll see,” replied Brush, signaling for Joe to proceed.

Attacking Brush with a tornado kick, he knocked him to his knees. “Get up. Let’s finish this.”

Brush wiped the blood from his lip, the gash in his face larger than before. Settling back into the cat stance, he shifted his weight to his good side, leaving his wounded side exposed.

“Poor stance, dude.”

“Why is that?”

“You’ve been favoring your right side.”

“Okay.”

“And, now, you’re putting that side in front, which tells me the injury is too severe to carry your weight. Which also means it’s probably too weak to handle the execution and force required for a kick.”

“All of that just to say you’re confident you’ll kick my ass?”

Joe nodded.

“Bring—”

Brush was interrupted by Joe’s sudden execution of a jump spin hook kick.

Observing a slight shift in his arms in the seconds before he jumped, Brush waited, dropping into his horse stance, blocking the attack, clinching onto his foot.

Countering with a left upper cut to the pressure point near the muscular femoral nerve, he then twisted his leg around. Lowering it, he performed a downward elbow strike to the same nerve, causing immense pain to spread up the leg, temporarily crippling him.

Pulling him in closer, Brush swept the leg, dropping him to the floor. Still holding his other leg, Brush also dropped down, using his forearm to apply pressure to the peroneal nerve located midway up the calf.

From there, he slid his hand down to his Achilles tendon, and with Joe’s foot in his armpit, he lifted his hips, and with much force, successfully dislocated his ankle.

Seamlessly transitioning into a knee bar, he secured the same ankle, this time positioning it on the side of his face, pivoting to his side. Using his hips, he hyperextended Joe’s knee, with enough force to cause extensive tissue and ligament damage.

With Joe’s screams catching the attention of another member of his team, Brush shrimped away, hiding around the corner.

“He’s around the corner, idiot. Go get him,” ordered Joe, breathing deeply, the pain in his leg excruciating.

As the man turned the corner, he was met with the butt of a rifle, knocked unconscious as it collided with his nose.

“You’re dead,” he hollered. “My men will—”

“Enough,” ordered Brush. Placing one hand on the back of his head, the other covering his mouth, he twisted.

Certain Joe was dead, he locked the other in a closet. Taking a brief second to gather his composure, he proceeded down the hall.

~

 

“Here,” said Brush, pointing to a cluster of trees.

Grabbing the duffle bags, they hastily exited the jeep, taking cover behind some tall shrubbery.

“What’s the plan,” asked Weinkauf.

“You don’t look so good.”

“I’ll be fine. I’ve been shot before. Just need to re-acclimate is all.”

“With the jeep concealed behind the trees, we should be able to lure them out further, hopefully separating them from one another, making it easier to eliminate.”

“How many do you think there are?”

“Newman said eight.”

“This is ridiculous,” whispered Weinkauf. “Never in my life have I been so overwhelmed. We’re trapped here, forced to fight our way out. We’re both injured, no cover, outnumbered, I—”

“That’s the story of my life, and I’m still here.”

Weinkauf smiled.

They both cringed as the suburban barreled down the dirt road, decelerating as it approached the jeep.

“Dammit,” whispered Brush.

“What?”

“They stopped too soon.”

Weinkauf removed a remote detonator from his pocket, handing it to Brush.

“What’s this for? I didn’t lay any plastic.”

“I may have accidentally left a brick of C4 in the front seat, wired and such.”

“You didn’t.”

“I can’t fire it, but you can.”

Taking the remote from Weinkauf, Brush waited until five of the eight were standing close by. Bracing himself, he triggered the detonator, the force of the blast propelling body parts in all directions.

“You understand you basically did that, right?”

“I did not. I left the explosives in the event we needed more. I didn’t want all our eggs in one basket, so to speak.”

“But, you handed me the detonator. Without it, I wouldn’t have known. Those men would still be alive.”

“I suppose this experience is teaching me that it is just as great a sin to contribute to an enemy’s demise, as it is to stand idly by, allowing said enemy to harm a friend.”

“Lesser of the two evils?”

Weinkauf nodded.

“Nonetheless, that was awesome. However, the other three are drawing closer.”

Retrieving his tranquilizer gun from his pocket, Weinkauf checked the magazine before making his move.

“Where are you going,” whispered Brush, watching as Weinkauf disappeared behind a nearby cactus.

Brush remained crouched down, observing as one of the remaining three communicated via radio. Unable to hear much of the conversation, he heard enough to know their time was limited.

Removing the MP5 from his duffle, Brush stood. Advancing toward the guards, he open-fired, rapidly eliminating them. Just as he secured one of their radios to his belt, he saw Weinkauf motioning for him to hide.

Diving behind the suburban, he lay quiet, peering at the second suburban, as seven armed guards exited the vehicle.

“You have got to be kidding me.”

“Please tell me you have something.”

Startled, Brush aimed his weapon, nearly riddling Weinkauf’s head with MP5 rounds.

“How did you get over here?”

“I walked. So, what’s the plan?”

“All I know is we can’t handle another seven.”

“Very true. Listen, the compound is right on the other side of this line of trees, right?”

Brush nodded.

“Impenetrable?”

“Nearly. Do you have any more of that C4?”

Weinkauf tossed Brush the duffle.

“Perfect,” he said, slicing the sash off the bag.

“What are you doing?”

“This suburban is clearly armored,” he said, pointing to the grill. “If we play it right, I think we can use it to penetrate the compound.”

Weinkauf paused, speechless, pointing in the direction of the guards. “If we can’t handle even seven, why enter a compound with nearly four hundred?”

“My daughter is why.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay. Listen, I know we were going to strike tomorrow night. I know Newman devised a great plan of attack, but the time is now. If we don’t do this, right now, we don’t ever.”

Weinkauf nodded. “How can I help?”

 

~

 

“I am quite surprised at you,” said Carlos.

“Why is that,” replied Amber, once again finding herself cuffed to a bedframe, still groggy from the pain reliever Jasmine administered.

“You are an exceptionally resourceful girl. It appears you have developed a little network of allies since your time in El Diablo.”

“What makes you say that,” she coughed, her stretched posture from the restraints nearly unbearable.

“Well, the last I saw of you, you were laying wounded, your injuries certainly leading to imminent death. Now, the next morning, you are alive and well.”

“That is interesting,” she said, grinning.

He took a seat on the edge of the bed. “What I cannot seem to understand is the level of loyalty you have gained in such a short time. What could you have possibly said to them that they would go up against me so strongly?”

Amber stayed silent.

“Even the doctor is oblivious.”

“Maybe you should moisturize more often.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your face, it’s disgusting.”

He raised his hand to strike her.

“Violence is just your answer for everything, isn’t it,” she asked, hoping to talk him down.

He lowered his hand. “I am glad to see you are feeling so much better. Enjoy your rest. Tomorrow, I am putting you back to work.”

“Wonderful. Where at this time?”

“I believe you will enjoy it.”

“You and I have a very different definition of fun.”

Carlos stood. “I will figure out who aided you, and when I do, I will kill them, their deaths on your hands. You should not have gotten anyone involved in your circumstances.”

 

~

 

Later that evening, she was woken by a short, pudgy Hispanic woman in her mid-fifties.

“Wake. Wake,” she said, shaking Amber.

“Is that you, Lupe?”

“No. I am Cèlia. I treat wounds. No trouble,” she said, shaking her finger. “Understand?”

Amber nodded.

Cèlia yanked Amber’s shirt up, forcibly removing her abdominal bandage, causing the wound to bleed.

“Ah, watch it,” she screamed.

“Want me do this or no?”

“Not if you’re going to do it like that. What’s your problem, anyway?”

“Fine I leave.” She dropped the medical supplies on the counter and headed for the door.

“Wow, you’re rude. What rock did Carlos find you under, anyhow?”

She turned. Slowly walking back to Amber, she glared at her the entire time. “I no like you. I think he should kill you. I tell him, let me do it. He says, in good time. I say, why wait.”

Amber’s eyes widened.

“Believe it.”

“If you hate me so much, why don’t you just let Lupe and Esmerelda watch me?”

“Señor Carlos lost faith in them. They might not make it through today. If you think I help you escape like they, you wrong. Now, be still,” she replied, yanking off the shoulder bandage.

 

~

 

“Where are they taking us,” asked Amber, as she climbed into the back of the transport.

“They do not like it when we talk,” replied an elderly woman.

Amber nodded, taking a seat near the cab.

After a lengthy drive, they arrived at the coca processing plant. A glorified warehouse, it sat thirty-five miles northeast of the residence, one quarter mile from the shipping plant.

“You,” said Seve, pointing to Amber. “Come with me,” he ordered, signaling for her to exit the transport.

“Once the cocaine is extracted from the coca leaves, it is walked over to shipping. From there, it is packaged and loaded onto trucks for distribution. You follow?”

She nodded.

“There are many stations. Here is where we start,” he said, pointing to a tarp just outside the processing plant. “This is where the leaves are transported after harvest. The work at this station is to dump the leaves onto the tarp. They must be completely dried in one day.”

“So, what am I going to be doing?”

“I will get to that. I like my workers to understand all aspects of the process before doing their insignificant part. Cross training, if you will.”

“Okay,” she replied, following him to the shed.

“Once the leaves are dry, we chop them into tiny pieces with the weed whipper.”

“Why?”

“That comes later. After they are chopped, a worker sprinkles a specified amount of cement powder into the mix, followed by ammonia and lime.”

“Are you kidding me? That’s what’s in this crap?”

“Since your injuries limit you, you will be in charge of this,” he replied, shoving a watering can into her chest.

“Is this gas,” she asked, the fumes burning her nose.

“Correct. You will be in charge of dousing the leaves in diesel fuel once the lime has been added.”

“That’s it? Really? All you need me for is this?”

“Not quite. Once the mixture is converted into paste, we take it one step further, transforming it into a powder.”

“I don’t need a cocaine education class to graduate, so if you wouldn’t mind,” she replied, gesturing for him to skip ahead.

“Come inside,” he said, shooting her an icy glare.

“Now,” he continued. “Once you’ve watered the leaves, you will then come into this room to drain the liquid from the solution before transferring it to these heat lamps. Someone will show you the process when it gets closer.”

“Where is the restroom?”

“Over there. No one goes in without the guards knowing. I assure you, there is no escape.”

As a guard escorted her to her station, Seve stayed behind with Carlos.

“What were you thinking giving me an injured worker? A girl is bad enough, but a sick one?”

“Do not worry, Seve,” replied Carlos. “The girl will not be here for long.”

“What do you mean? Have you captured Brush?”

Carlos shook his head. “Not yet, but soon. Just keep her busy for a few days longer. Then, she will be out of your hair forever.”

“What did Newman say? Have you learned their plan of attack?”

Carlos nodded. “They will attack at first light.”

“In light of recent events, do you not think they will adjust their plan to account for his betrayal?”

“They are pinned down outside the west wall as we speak. If they manage to squirm free, they will have no choice but to strike as planned.”

“I do not understand.”

“Newman’s plan was perfect, capitalizing on our only weakness: not knowing our enemy. But, now, we know they are only two. His brute force attack no longer plausible, yet our walls impenetrable, Brush will have no choice but to go through with the original attack.”

“Are we prepared?”

Carlos nodded. “Newman’s betrayal was the final straw. Brush is outgunned, outnumbered, and out of time. This ends now.”

 

 

14

 

The Skill to Survive

 

He felt his left eye beginning to swell, his right cheek and both lips already taut. Certain his nose was broken and possibly even his jaw, he continued moving.

“I don’t know how I made it out of that one alive,” he whispered. “He was one tough bastard.”

Coming upon several doors leading from the hall, he paused. “Three on the right, two on the left.”

Not knowing what was behind any of them, he opted to start with the first. Slowly twisting the glass knob, the door creaked with every move.

“Is that you, Dick,” asked a voice below.

Brush contemplated descending the narrow staircase, only to be reminded of what Newman had mentioned earlier. “If the CIA secures the safes under the furnaces, then I bet that’s Howard.”

“Yeah, Grant asked me to send for you. We need you up here, ASAP,” replied Brush, his voice muffled.

“Well, I am a little busy down here cracking a nearly impenetrable CIA safe, in case he forgot.”

“No worries, man. Just get up here as soon as you can. He’s in the back.”

“Well, let him know I am eighty-five percent through, and to give me another ten minutes, fifteen, tops. Although, I could really use that code about now.”

“Will do. Hey, sorry to bother you, but do you know when the power’s coming back on?”

“The lines were cut over an hour ago. The backup generator was supposed to kick on after fifteen minutes.”

“That’s why I’m asking.”

“I sent Max out there a few minutes ago to check it out. Hopefully, we will have something soon.”

“No worries, man, just checking.”

Pushing the door to, he moved on to the next, the bathroom. With the pain in his abdomen increasing, blood oozing from his shoulder, he knew he had to adapt, and quickly.

He concealed his assault rifle in the tub, knowing that getting off a clear shot with his shoulder was out of the picture. “I would end up causing more harm than good.”

When Howard ascends the staircase, he’ll have to walk past here, he thought, searching the closet for anything he could use to set a trap. There was nothing.

Next, he quietly scanned the contents of the under-sink storage. “Bingo,” he whispered, removing the iron from the fourth drawer down.

Using his knife, he sliced the cord off at the base. Plugging it into the wall outlet just above the sink, he turned the water on full blast, clogging the drain with a wash cloth.

“Now, all I need is for the power to return,” he whispered, continuing down the hall, the lights beginning to flicker until they were on steady.

About that time, the outside door opened, a figure emerging from the darkness. It was Max.

“You’re not Dick,” he said, shocked at the very presence of Brush.

“No, Dick’s on vacation. I’m filling in for him,” he replied, quickly disappearing into the next room, stepping over the electrified water puddle seeping into the hallway.

“Hey, get back here. Who are you?”

Unaware of the trap set in the restroom, Max stormed after him. In a matter of seconds, he was on the floor, smoke emanating from his boots.

Hearing the thud, Howard came running up the staircase, his eyes wide as he gazed upon Max’s limp body.

“What the—,” he said, only to be interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. As he turned his head, Brush head-butted him, followed by a swift downward elbow strike to the nose.

Recovering quicker than Brush thought, Howard countered with a speedy right hook and a left reverse punch to his abdomen, irritating the wound in his side.

With Howard coming in with a knee strike, Brush covered his abdomen with his arms, absorbing the blow. Countering with two left jabs, he successfully landed one, the other missing terribly.

Howard followed with a horizontal knife-hand strike, intended for the pressure point along the jaw line. Blocking the strike, Brush secured Howard’s hand, twisting his arm to the side. Slamming his head into a decorative vase, shattering it, he then forced Howard’s head into the wooden stand, tossing his limp body into the still electrified water for good measure.

Back on the far end of the hall, he was clearing the last room when he heard what sounded like talking coming from the closet. Out of the line of fire, he leaned against the wall, slowly twisting the knob, cracking the door.

There was nothing. A large walk in closet, it was full of clothes, shoes, and already wrapped Christmas gifts. He crept inside, attempting to reacquire the conversation.

As he continued inside, the source of the noise became apparent. Running his fingers along the back, he discovered a false wall. By gently applying pressure to the upper corner, he popped it open without drawing attention to himself.

Cracked just enough for him to peek inside, he almost hurled at the sight in the distance. The scientist, his wife, their adult daughter, and Newman were all tied to their chairs. Newman was facing the closet, the family positioned to his left.

The room appeared to be a workshop of sorts. Filling the shelves were various components to include: laptops, circuit boards, flasks, brain maps, and books on genetic coding.

Judging by Newman’s injuries, he surmised the torture began moments after entering the residence. Both of his eyes were nearly swollen shut, his shirt removed to gain better access to his abdomen.

Dried blood ran from gashes in his chest, meeting with those is his stomach. A knife protruded from his left leg just above his knee, his right foot bare, having been nailed to the floor, the assailant still holding the nail gun.

“Give us the code to the safe or he gets another,” Trinity ordered, in her thick Norwegian accent. “Grant,” she said, pointing to Newman’s other foot.

He bent down to remove his shoe.

“Or, maybe, I could just shoot one here,” she said, positioning the tip of the nail gun in the center of his left hand.

“Wait,” replied the scientist, “just stop, please stop.”

“What do you know,” she asked, smirking, “he speaks after all”.

“You don’t need the code, I heard you talking with the other guy. He’s some kind of safe cracker, right? Can’t he just figure it out?”

“Of course he can, and he will. However, I would prefer if you assisted,” she replied, strolling over to his wife, placing the tip of the nail gun flush against her right eye. “And, I don’t think you want me here that long. I get bored easily.”

“Stop it,” he yelled.

“Give me the codes,” she ordered, “Now.”

“Fine, just please let them go. I’m who you want.”

“The codes?”

“They’re written down in my journal.”

“Where?”

“The drawer over there,” he replied, nodding toward the cabinet, “second to last on the right.”

“Grant,” she said.

“It’s locked,” he replied.

“Where is the key,” asked Trinity.

Completely frazzled, he closed his eyes. “Uh, it’s uh, in the the box underneath the—It’s in the supply drawer, one over from where he’s standing.”

“Here,” said Grant, opening the drawer.

“Yes, it’s underneath the box of latex gloves.”

“Found it,” he replied, tossing it to Trinity.

“Thank you, Dr. Bristone. Now, was that really so difficult,” she asked, scanning his journal for the codes.

“You now possess the key, please, just take the device and leave us be.”

“Oh, how sweet, but you know I can’t do that. You and your pretty little family have seen our faces.”

“Please, don’t,” he begged. “We won’t say anything, ever, I swear.”

“See now, if I was a more trusting person, I would believe you because that looked truly genuine, but I don’t.”

Handing Grant the nail gun, she gripped Newman’s .45. While fastening the silencer, she made her way to the daughter, pressing the barrel against her temple.

“Don’t worry,” she said, glaring over at Dr. Bristone, “the neighbors won’t hear a thing with the silencer, and you can thank your friends at the CIA for that.”

With Trinity’s finger on the trigger, Brush had no choice but to act. Unable to get a clear shot, he set his sights on Grant. Removing his tactical knife from his belt, he kicked open the door, launching it at center mass. Propelling through the air, the eleven inch Bowie penetrated his abdomen, piercing just above his belly button.

The distraction just alarming enough to throw her off, Brush entered the room, his 12 gauge aimed, ready to fire. Knowing he lacked the strength to absorb the recoil, he hoped his intimidating presence would suffice.

“I don’t think so,” said a voice behind him. “Drop it or I’ll blow your head clean off your body.”

“No need to be going all crazy,” he replied, resting the butt of the shotgun on the ground.

“Slide it in between your legs. Push it back to me.”

“That’s oddly specific.”

“Just do it,” she ordered.

“Okay, okay. Calm down. Placing the gun on the floor now, letting go of it, and now push—”

Tightening his grip on the weapon, he rolled to his right, taking cover behind a bookshelf.

“Brilliant. Taking cover behind a wooden bookshelf in the same room as the enemy. How ingenious.”

He raised the barrel to the bookshelf. “This is going to sting,” he said, firing three times in her general direction.

He stopped when he heard her scream.

“Very nice, Agent Brush,” she said, limping toward him, the shot having penetrated her right leg, lodging in her knee. “Your marksmanship is superb.”

“Yeah, well, at least I tried.”

“You do realize you are outnumbered and out gunned? You understand?”

“Trinity, the resident strategist, I presume. Dishonorably discharged from the navy for a string of petty thefts. You then graduated to a few bank robberies before settling on Russian Intelligence.”

“Those bank robberies could never be proven, neither could the navy thefts. I was set up. But, a narrow minded law enforcement official as yourself would never understand.”

“Oh, so if it wasn’t you, then who? Oh, I bet it was Grant who set you up. Yeah, he knew they were closing in on him, so he made sure your entire unit went down.”

“Do you ever shut up, Agent Brush?”

“Not really.”

“Come out, Agent Brush. Or, your friend here dies.”

“Try again.”

“Enough of this. Grant, go get his gun.”

“Me? I just got stabbed in the stomach from like twelve feet away. You go get the damn gun.”

“I’m kind of busy over here,” she whispered, signaling for him to tip the shelf over on Brush.

Grant shook his head. “No.”

Trinity fired five rounds into the shelf, tossing the empty gun onto the floor

“Okay, okay,” he said, coming out from behind the shelf, his hands in the air.

“Grant, would you go get the man’s gun, or do I need to do it myself?”

“Fine.” With one hand cradling his abdominal wound, he limped over to Brush, glaring at him the entire way. “I’m going kill you,” he said, reaching for the gun.

“Can’t wait,” Brush replied, smiling.

Handing the shotgun to Trinity, Grant proceeded to pat Brush down, completely stripping him of his arsenal.

“Don’t forget to check my ankles.”

Grant paused, glancing back at Trinity.

She nodded for him to continue.

Using a desk chair to aid in his descent, Grant lowered himself to the ground. As he prepared to check his ankles, Brush executed two simultaneous precision strikes to either side of his neck, the sheer force knocking him to his stomach.

Yanking him to his feet by his collar, Brush used him as a shield. Restraining him in a traditional headlock, he used the opportunity to rearm, grabbing his 9mm from the table.

“Now, this is how it’s going to happen,” he said, his weapon aimed at Trinity. “I will throw you my cuffs. You will put them on and go stand in that corner.”

“Is that so? And, why would I comply so easily?”

“How about because all of your men are either dead or tied up.”

“How convenient,” she said, ever so slowly making her way to the counter.

“I have no problem ending you, lady.”

“Oh, a tough guy, are we?”

“You have no idea.”

Reaching under the counter, she pulled a gun on Brush. “Let him go,” she ordered.

“I’m done.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“This,” he said. Forcing the barrel of his firearm into Grant’s mouth, he pulled back the hammer.

“Stop,” she screamed. “Fine, toss me your cuffs.”

Brush tossed them onto the floor. “Come and get them yourself,” he ordered, taking a few precautionary steps back. “Don’t try anything.”

Dangling her firearm from her index finger, she slowly set it down, discreetly lifting a palm-sized detonator from the counter. Kneeling down to retrieve the cuffs, she smiled at Brush. “Boom,” she whispered, revealing she had activated the detonator.

“What have you done?”

“My men are all armed with a strip of C4. Think of it as my insurance policy.”

Looking to Newman for assistance, he received nothing, only noticing a utility belt tied around his waist. Releasing Grant, he rushed to Newman’s side, quickly removing the belt, listening as Trinity began laughing.

Grabbing Newman, he bolted for the closet, the explosions thrusting them through the air and into the hallway.

“That’s one way to get the last word,” said Newman, scooting against the wall for support.

Brush stared at him. “You look like hell.”

“You look worse. And, next time you’re about to save my ass, and my foot is nailed to the floor, please let me know before you act.”

“About that? How is it?”

“Well, other than being able to see out of it—”

They both laughed.

Climbing to their feet, they hobbled to the kitchen.

“I’m going to call this in,” Brush said, pulling out his cell.

“That can wait.”

“Okay. What’s on your mind?”

“What you did in there was outstanding.”

“No problem, just doing my—”

“Let me finish. From the looks of it, you single handedly eliminated the threat, taking on some of the best mercenaries in the business.

“I don’t know how you did it, and probably wouldn’t believe you if you told me, but the point is, you saved my life.”

“But, we lost three more.”

“I know, but we did our best. I mean, look at us. We just went through an explosion, walking out only because you didn’t give up.”

“You better not try to hug me.”

“Don’t worry, I hate the FBI.”

“Yeah, well, the CIA is stupid.”

“Seriously, though. If you ever find yourself in a hole and could use another shovel, call me. I will be there.”

“Did they drug you?”

“Shut-up.”

 

~

“This hearing will commence with a testimony from FBI Director Gorman.”

“So, Director Gorman, if I may, your report reads that you issued a direct order to Agent Brush demanding he stand down. Is this correct?”

“Yes, but—”

“Now, your superiors assured the court you would remain objective in this case, regardless of the fact that the defendant is your son-in-law.”

“Absolutely.”

“Perfect. So, after disobeying your direct order, he proceeded to the residence. Upon breaking in, he systemically murdered eleven people, including the family inside.”

Gorman shook his head. “That is correct.”

“Eight supposed criminals?”

“Yes. If his accounting of events is accurate, the supposed strike team was ten strong. We only found eight bodies, not counting the three civilian casualties. It would seem, the two leaders somehow escaped the blast.”

“Thank you. Please return to your seat.”

“Agent Newman, how are you feeling?”

“It’s been two weeks, I’m good.”

“You were tasked with leading this investigation, even gaining permission for Agent Brush to join you because of his expertise, correct?”

“Correct.”

“You testified for the defense, stating that without Agent Brush, you would have died. You come across as believing his actions to be heroic, even purely self-defense.”

“Have you not read his medical report? I mean, he’s lucky to be alive. Anything less than a commendation would be a disgrace.”

“Why do you say that?”

Newman straightened his posture. “It’s clear to me you have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Excuse me?”

“While I was being beaten, literally nailed to the floor, he was out there fighting for his life, for my life, for the lives of the innocent, for the nation, the world. Against some of the most highly trained in the world. Sure, we lost three more, but how many did we save my keeping this technology from the enemy?”

“While that sounds very commendable, I must point out that it wasn’t his job to do any of that. So, while he saved you and your organization’s information, the deaths of those mercenaries was unsanctioned, classifying it as murder.”

“What he did was brave and selfless. I would be honored to have him as my partner.”

“You can return to your seat. Thank you.”

 

~

 

After a two hour deliberation, the review board reached a decision. The panel of five returned to their seats, handing the chairman the verdict. Putting on his glasses, he opened the sealed envelope, unfolding the paper.

“Agent Andrew Brush. Your blatant disregard of a direct order from the Director of the FBI cannot go unpunished. However, we believe the nature of your actions to be pure and ultimately justified.

“With that said, the decision rests upon you. In addition to serving a three month suspension without pay, you have the option of either maintaining your current post, closely supervised for the next five years, or returning to your previous post in Dallas.

“If you choose to continue with the bureau, one violation of this order will see you removed as a special agent, banned from law enforcement for the remainder of your life.”

The chairman removed his glasses. “You have one hour to decide.”

Brush stood. “I have already made my decision.”

“I don’t recommend a rash decision, Andrew.”

“My decision is to return to my post in Dallas. My home is there, my family. This is my decision.”

“Very well. Go home, get packed. You fly out in the morning. This hearing is adjourned.”

He met Newman outside.

“How did your hearing go?”

“Mine isn’t until next month.”

“Sorry I got you involved in all this.”

“Don’t be. Dallas is where I belong. Hunting the cartels is why I joined in the first place.”

“Well, good luck,” Newman replied, extending his hand. “And, remember what I told you.”

Brush smiled. “Take care of yourself, Newman. And, hopefully next time I see you, it’s under better circumstances.”

“I sure as hell hope so.”

 

~

 

“Have you laid the plastic,” asked Brush, drawing fire away from the hood of the suburban, allowing Weinkauf time to plant the C4.

“Check,” he replied, closing the hood. “All set.”

“Excellent. Now, fire it up and prepare for entry.”

Removing the duffle strap from his pocket, Weinkauf rigged the pedal. “Ready,” he hollered.

Opening the hatch, Brush dove inside, Weinkauf covering him while he repositioned.

“As soon as we breach the wall, run for cover,” ordered Brush. “I don’t care where. You have half the equipment. I have the rest. Godspeed.”

Just as the suburban made contact with the wall, Weinkauf detonated the explosives resting in the grill, creating a breach unlike anything they could have predicted.

In the midst of the wall crumbling, dust and debris everywhere, Brush and Weinkauf entered the compound, disappearing into the crowds. Hurrying into the first building he came across, the residence, Brush entered the kitchen, quickly tossing a charge under the sink.

“Where are they keeping you,” he asked, quietly exiting the kitchen through the patio door.

Stopping behind a row of shrubbery, he knelt down, counting his remaining charges. “Only four left,” he said, observing Weinkauf entering a warehouse through a window. “Have to make these count.”

“Who are you,” asked a man, approaching from the rear.

Brush smiled. “I work maintenance,” he said, showing the man his duffle.

Unclipping his radio from his belt, the man proceeded to call for backup.

“I don’t think so,” said Brush, knocking the man unconscious with a stern left hook.

Dragging him behind the shrubbery, he disappeared into the next building.

“Any luck,” asked Weinkauf, meeting up with Brush about a mile in.

Brush shook his head, staring into the distance.

“What are you thinking?”

“That I only have two charges left, and no clue where my daughter is being held.”

“Andrew, I—”

“What do you suppose that building is,” he asked, pointing to a significant structure about ten miles away.

“No idea. But, let’s find out,” Weinkauf replied, leading Brush to a parked four-wheeler.

“Looks to be two guards at the front,” whispered Brush. “Take us around back.”

Entering through a basement access door, Brush was immediately met by a man dressed in a lab coat.

“How can I be of assistance,” asked Dr. Morton, his eyes checking Brush top to bottom.

“What is this place,” he whispered.

“Right now, you’re in the doctor’s office. The name’s Dr. Morton,” he said, extending his hand.

“What’s upstairs,” he asked, disregarding the doctor’s hand.

“The whore house. It’s where all the girls are housed. Why am I telling you this? Who exactly are you, mister?”

Brush gripped him by the throat, thrusting him into the wall. “You are going to tell everything you know about these girls. I want names, duties, locations, other facilities, everything.”

“I can’t—” he choked.

“Oh, you will,” replied Brush, forcing the barrel of his .45 into the doctor’s mouth. “I guarantee it.”

 

~

 

“What do you want to know,” he whimpered, his hands restrained behind his back, Brush holding him hostage in an exam room.

“How many girls?”

“I don’t know, maybe like a few hundred.”

“Tell me about new recruits.”

“New recruits?”

“Any new arrivals within the last week?”

“Sure, we get new arrivals almost daily. Some weeks, Carlos kills them faster than we can get them.”

“Mainly South American women?”

“Not necessarily. Carlos likes them young, so girls usually, women sometimes.”

“That’s not what I mean. Any girls that stand out? Like from the United States?”

“Oh, sure. Yeah, actually one pretty recently. She didn’t last even one day. Poor kid.”

Brush’s eyes filled with tears.

“What’s a matter, mister?”

“So help me God, I’m going to kill you when I’m done here.”

“Oh, please—”

“On your knees,” he ordered, his .45 pressed against the doctor’s head.

“What did I say? Was it about the American girl? Please, don’t hurt me. I didn’t do anything. In fact, her friends used my supplies to save her life. So you see, without me, she would be dead. I saved her life, I—”

“What was the girls’ name?”

“Excuse me?”

“The girls’ name, idiot,” he screamed.

“I don’t know,” he cried. “All I know is two bitches came in here the other night. And, while one distracted me with her earthly ways, the other two stole medicine, left my exam bed all bloody.

“Now, my ass is on the line with Carlos. The bastard’s probably going to kill me for what they did.”

“Why did they secretly help her?”

“Hell if I know. Carlos is always ranting about some stupid hostage he’s holding. I’ve seen her a time or two for heroin overdose, figured it killed her, but he says no.”

Brush gripped the back of his head, digging the barrel of his .45 into the doctor’s eye. “Where is Carlos keeping the girl?”

“I have no idea. Just glad I’m still alive. Carlos is one angry guy, and by the looks of that girl, he was getting fed up with her real fast.”

“Thanks,” he replied, knocking the doctor unconscious by slamming his head against the back wall.

As Brush cautiously made his way upstairs, Weinkauf was busy questioning a young girl.

“What is your name?”

“Frida,” she replied timidly.

Weinkauf offered a comforting smile. “Frida, I’m looking for a young girl, probably about your age. Her name is Amber. She is—”

“I’m sorry. I cannot help you,” she replied, racing up the staircase.

Weinkauf followed after.

“This area is restricted. What are you doing up here,” Lupe asked, Esmerelda not far behind.

“I am looking for a young girl.”

“So are a lot of other guys, creep.”

“Her name is Amber. She is—”

Lupe’s eyes widened. She leaned in. “Are you her father?”

“No, but he is,” Weinkauf replied, pointing to Brush standing at the bottom of the staircase.

“Do you know where she is,” asked Brush, meeting the girls halfway up the staircase.

“After she was shot, they moved her to the main house,” said Esmerelda.

“I laid a charge in that place,” replied Brush. “Are you certain that’s where she is being held?”

“Jasmine said she was being transferred to a new location.”

“Any idea where that could be?”

Esmerelda glanced at Lupe before turning her attention back to Brush. “Amber is tough. She has moved around much. The only place she has not yet worked at is the processing plant.”

“Great. Where?”

 

~

 

Brush was getting directions from the girls when screaming and gunfire erupted from outside.

“Dammit,” he said, pulling his pistol from his side, “thought we had more time.”

Grabbing the remote detonator from his bag, he also removed his M15, securing it over his shoulder.

“They’re preparing to enter through the front,” said Weinkauf. “Don’t worry. I’ll handle this.”

Placing a charge on the double doors, he took cover in a nearby closet, waiting. Crossing himself, he flipped the switch, detonating the charge.

“Come on,” ordered Brush.

“Do you have—”

“Yes. I know where she is. Follow me.”

Racing through a corridor, into a communal living area, Brush fired on three guards, not slowing his pace until reaching the loading dock. As the guards outside started closing in on facility, the reality of it all became abundantly clear.

“Weinkauf, hand me a charge,” Brush ordered, reaching out his hand.

“What are you thinking,” Weinkauf replied, handing it to him.

“I want to blow this back wall. The girls said the plant is thirty miles in that direction. They also said the guards keep a truck out back.”

“Very well. Let’s do it.”

 

~

 

“Grab the girl and go,” ordered the voice on the other end of the radio.

“Go where? I have fifty others here, and one pickup,” replied Hernando. “Do you know how much product we would lose if we left now?”

“Fine. You are correct. Juan and I will be there momentarily. Keep a close look out. Brush is raising hell, and God only knows where he will try to go next.”

“By the looks of the whore house, I would say he has brought with him not hell, but the anger of Dios.”

 

~

 

“I think we’ve been spotted,” said Weinkauf, pointing to a warehouse they just passed.

“Looks like it,” replied Brush, “Time for step two,” he said, pulling the detonator from his shirt pocket.

He watched in the rearview mirror as the main residence exploded, the first floor engulfed in flames.

“How much farther,” asked Weinkauf, nervously observing as the truck tailing them inched closer.

“We’re here,” replied Brush. Slamming on the breaks, he turned a sharp left, the truck skidding, performing a one eighty.

“Get out,” yelled Weinkauf, breaking for the warehouse.

“What,” Brush asked, confused, but nonetheless following Weinkauf’s instructions.

He tossed Brush the detonator. “It’s my last one. Make it count.”

“You left a charge in the truck?”

Weinkauf nodded. “Still have your grenades?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Just give me four. Hurry.”

~

 

Using the truck as a diversion, they made it to the processing plant just minutes after Carlos and Juan.

“I do not think we should send all our men to the front,” argued Juan. “You said, Brush was a minor hiccup. That operations should continue as normal.”

“I understand your concerns. However, our attention is needed at the breach. Not only are we vulnerable to Brush, but this hole in our perimeter leaves us open to attacks from our enemies, of which we have many.”

“Here, silence is key,” whispered Brush.

Weinkauf nodded.

Heading to the back of the plant, Brush climbed the chain link fence, hoping to squeeze through an open window. With no such luck, he proceeded to enter through a rear door.

“What are you doing,” asked Weinkauf. “Are you really prepared to do this?”

“It’s now or never.”

He took a deep breathe. “Very well. I’ll stand guard. And, if Carlos walks in there?”

“That’s where you come in.”

“And, how exactly do I do that?”

“I don’t know, you’ll think of something,” he replied, slipping in silently.

After minutes of searching, he came back out. “She’s not in here,” he said frantically.

“Did you check the back?”

“No, that area is well guarded. I will need a distraction to gain enough time for that.”

“Once he knows we’re here, all hell is going to break loose. You know that. And, we still don’t have an exit strategy.”

“I know. I only need five minutes. If I’m not out by then, or if they come back in early, that’s your cue.”

“Alright,” Weinkauf replied, shaking his head. “I’ll do what I can.”

 

~

 

Quietly taking the guard out with a brachial stun, Brush hurriedly picked the lock to the office. Forcing the guard to sit, he came from behind, choking him out. Finding nothing inside but a desk full of papers, he slammed his fist on the table.

“I am this close,” he whispered.

After checking two more back rooms, he was beginning to think the girls were wrong. Just as he was about to give up and head back outside, he heard a faint cough come from the ladies room.

Having already cleared the room once, his interest was sparked. When he entered this time, he whispered her name. “Amber? Are you in here? It’s me, dad.” His voice quivered. “We don’t have much time. If you’re hiding, I need you to come out. We need to leave.”

Her response was faint, but it was all he needed. He tapped on the west wall. “Are you in there,” he asked, pressing his ear against the wall.

He stepped back. “Watch your head,” he said, slamming the butt of his pistol through the plaster wall, tearing a large enough hole to pull her through. Bound and gagged, he untied the handkerchief from around her mouth before slicing the ropes restraining her feet and hands.

Before he could sheath his knife, she latched onto him and wouldn’t let go. “I am so sorry,” he cried, his eyes welling up with tears. “So sorry.”

“I knew you’d come for me,” she replied, sobbing. “I just knew it. I love you so much.”

“I turned the world upside down looking for you. You’re such a strong girl. I love you.”

“It was so hard, daddy,” she sobbed. “I did everything you told me, but Amy wasn’t strong enough. She got sick. So, they killed her,” she continued, her words barely recognizable through her deep sobbing.

“I know, honey. I’m sorry. These are evil people that want me dead. They will do anything to do it.”

“I love you so much,” she said, clinging back around his neck. I just want to go home. I’m so tired.”

“Let’s get out of here.”

As he reached for the handle, he heard the front door slam shut. Cracking the bathroom door, he saw Carlos and Juan enter. “This building is on lockdown. No one in or out until we account for every head.”

“What was that,” asked Juan, taking a closer look at an item thrown through the window, landing fifteen feet from them.

“Grenade,” yelled Carlos, diving for cover.

Startled more than injured, he ran outside, his weapon drawn. “Who is there,” he asked, briskly walking the perimeter. “Identify yourself,” he demanded.

Back inside, Hernando was standing over Juan.

“What is the matter,” asked Carlos.

“He is gone,” replied Hernando, repeatedly checking Juan’s pulse. “The grenade got him.”

“Dammit,” he hollered. “Okay, you clear the back rooms. I will clear the remainder of the plant.”

Brush observed as Carlos intently cleared the building. He took a deep breath. “What a crazy guy.”

Weinkauf approached. “It’s time to go.”

Brush nodded. Removing the pins from the remaining three grenades, he waited. As soon as Carlos noticed him through the window, he tossed them inside, watching as he scrambled to escape, to no avail.

Approaching the perimeter, they briefly turned back, taking in all that remained of El Diablo. Save for a few smoldering piles of wood, a cultural legend lay dead.

Holding two guards hostage, the others dropped their weapons, opening the gate, allowing them safe passage. After walking the short distance to the second suburban, Brush ordered Weinkauf and Amber to get inside before releasing the guards.

“If you follow me, I will kill you.”

“You will not live long enough to exit the country.”

“I don’t think you quite grasp who I am, what I just accomplished. Carlos is dead. Seve is dead. Juan is dead. Víctor is dead. I sent the devil back to hell.”

“Another will rise up. Vengeance will be had.”

“Maybe so, but you won’t see it happen,” he replied, forcing both guards into the road. “I want you to give a message to whomever rises up next.”

“Want us to give them your address?”

“Tell them, they better know what they’re doing.”

 

~

 

“You’re one great guy,” said Brush, as they sped toward the coast.

“You’re welcome,” replied Weinkauf, reclining in his seat.

Brush smiled. “So, you’re welcome for saving your life back there.”

“Saving my life? No, I saved your life.”

“When did you save my life?”

“Only the whole time. Hey, Amber, you saw me, wasn’t I saving his butt the entire time?”

“How could she see? She was stuck behind a wall. It was me who saved you from getting killed. Now, that’s something Amber saw. You’re welcome. Right, Amber,” Brush asked, chuckling.

“Shhh,” said Weinkauf.

“What?”

Weinkauf pointed at Amber.

Brush adjusted his rearview mirror, grinning, tears streaming down his face, as he watched his little girl fast asleep. “I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for what you’ve done. Without you, I—”

“My pleasure, Andrew.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

“You want to give me a hand,” Kelly asked, removing the lasagna from the oven. “Everyone’s going to be here in less than thirty.”

“I better go help mom,” Brush said, pausing the movie. “Be back soon.”

“Okay,” Amber mumbled, half asleep.

“How’s she doing?”

“She’s fine.”

“Stronger than either of us at that age.”

Brush smiled. “What can I help you with?”

 

~

 

“So, here he is, arguing with me about my moral views on murder, when all of a sudden Newman’s eyes get really wide and he drops to the ground.”

Weinkauf chuckled. “The man had just shot me at point blank. What did you expect?”

“I wish you would have trusted me, Andrew,” said Gorman, taking a swig of beer. “Contrary to popular belief, I could have assisted more than you think.”

“And, what about me,” asked William. “My own son bears the weight of the world on his shoulders, when I’m ready and willing to assist.”

“Thanks, guys, but I couldn’t ask you to risk your lives. I feel bad enough Weinkauf got roped into it.”

“We’re just glad you’re both back safe,” interjected Katherine.

“And, that El Diablo is officially a thing of the past,” said William.

“So, Brush, what’s next,” asked Weinkauf.

“Not sure, yet.”

Gorman grinned. “The offer still stands. Come back to the bureau. Lead your team. We need you.”

“It’s tempting. It really is, but I—”

“He needs time,” interrupted Kelly, rubbing her hands through his hair.

“Amber, how are you holding up,” Weinkauf asked, reaching for a beer.

“I’m okay,” she replied, offering a faint smile.

“Good. Well, if you ever want to talk.”

“Thanks.”

“Hey, Amber,” said Brush, “why don’t you go to the den and grab a movie.”

“Okay,” she replied, “what are you thinking?”

“Your choice,” he smiled, quietly observing the brewing threat approaching from out front. “Kelly, would you mind going with her?”

“What’s going on,” she asked, confused, suspicious.

“Please, get our mothers out of here,” he whispered. “Now,” he screamed, as four men dressed in full tactical gear propelled through the living room windows, firing rounds into the ceiling.

Brush dove behind the couch. “Weinkauf?”

“I’m here,” he said, joining Brush.

“I have a few firearms stored under this couch. On my mark.”

Weinkauf nodded.

“Could it be the cartel,” asked William, crawling from behind the recliner.

“Dad, go with the others. Get to safety.”

“If the preacher can stay, so can I. Hand me a gun.”

“Oh, Andrew,” said the fifth man, entering through the front door. “Show yourself,” he ordered, his voice high, his laugh maniacal.

Brush glanced at Weinkauf. “No. It can’t be.”

“The Pied Piper?”

Chambering a shell in his 12 gauge, Brush slowly emerged from behind the couch.

“There he is,” said the Pied Piper, advancing toward him at a brisk pace, his men standing at attention, weapons aimed to kill.

“That’s far enough,” ordered Brush, raising the 12 gauge level to the Piper’s head.

“Oh, goody,” he chuckled.

“What are you here to accomplish?”

“More like, how did you get out,” interjected Weinkauf, staying in the shadows, his tranquilizer gun drawn.

“Is that Weinkauf,” asked the Piper, giggling as he danced past Brush.

“Not so fast,” said Brush, blocking him from continuing on. “What’s your business?”

“Well, nothing really,” he replied, crinkling his nose. “Just stopped by to let you know I’m back.”

“They let you out,” asked Weinkauf.

“More like, they couldn’t contain me,” he chortled.

“I’m going to ask you again—”

“Alright, alright.”

“So?”

The Pied Piper ordered his men to stand down. Stepping through the window frames, into the front yard, he paused. “I’m holding you personally responsible for everything they did to me.”

“We had no choice but to deport you. That doesn’t fall on me. The Chinese had every right to prosecute you.”

“Maybe so,” he replied, his long, curly hair blowing in the wind. “But,” he continued, raising his index finger, his nails long, dirty, “I’m back. And, I’m coming for you.”

“So, what? This is you taunting me?”

“See you around, Andrew,” he said, disappearing into the darkness of the night. “Sweet dreams.”

 

~

 

“What do you mean, dead,” she asked, her voice agitated, desperate.

“There is nothing left. All is lost.”

“What about my padre?”

“I am so sorry, Rosita.”

“My brothers?”

“They are all gone.”

“What happened,” she asked, tightening her grip on the handset.

“Carlos became involved in the kidnapping of a federal agent’s daughter.”

“Yes, I know. The broker, Haiden.”

“He proved more resourceful than anyone imagined. Carlos refused to implement higher protection. He insisted he would emerge victorious.”

“What about Abelardo?”

“We are not sure. He may still be in Dallas. Or, he could very well be one of the many casualties here.”

“Do nothing until I arrive.”

“There is nothing to do.”

Rosita took a deep breathe.

“Are you there?”

“I have changed my mind. I will not leave Australia until this operation is through. We need to keep this relationship open. This may be our only revenue stream until I rebuild from the ruins.”

“What do you need from me?”

“Gather everything you can on this agent.”

“What are you thinking?”

“We will create a stronger, more cautious empire. Our name will extend throughout the United States.”

“How will we accomplish this?”

“By killing one of their very own on their own soil. Our new foundation stands on the death of Andrew Brush.”

 


Brush with Death

When a routine study session turns deadly and two girls are kidnapped, Special Agent Andrew Brush wastes no time identifying the man responsible: himself. His position compromised, he falls off the grid, engaging the enemy in a series of attacks meticulously orchestrated to draw out their leader. With the cartel closing in and the law not far behind, he accelerates his plan, unknowingly leading himself into a trap not even he can evade. Compelled to call into question how far is too far, he is forced to make a crucial decision that could very well seal the fate of those abducted.

  • ISBN: 9781310161681
  • Author: J. Misha Dunn
  • Published: 2016-02-14 01:20:27
  • Words: 111488
Brush with Death Brush with Death