FLASH FIRE – Copyright © 2015 by Dana Marton.
All rights reserved. Published in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the author. http://www.danamarton.com
Mexico City, Mexico
The men loading the coffin into the back of the hearse in the US embassy’s courtyard took their time and handled it with care. Sweat beaded on their foreheads, ran down their cheeks, but they didn’t rush. Even as the July sun radiated brutal heat from above, they kept every move careful and dignified, as befitted the occasion.
DOD Investigator Clara Roberts watched the scene through the open door of the embassy’s back hallway, looking past the marine corporal who stood in the opening.
“Anybody you know?” she asked the marine, keeping her voice down.
Behind her, her retrieval target was dozing in a chair, the flaxen-haired college freshman’s legs sprawled halfway across the corridor, drool gathering at the corner of his lips. Bobby Lekker looked beat, but was otherwise in pretty good shape, all things considered.
At least he wasn’t going to the airport in a hearse.
The marine corporal’s somber gaze swung to Clara. “No, ma’am.”
He was about to turn back, but then he paused and added, “Repatriation of remains. A tourist. He died in a Jet Ski incident while on vacation. Third repatriation this week. The other two were car accidents. Flown back to the States the day before yesterday. Rough summer so far this year. We don’t normally see this many bodies.”
The marine stood ramrod straight as he spoke, shoes at top shine, uniform in impeccable order, his hair regulation cut. He was as exact as if he’d been drawn by a mechanical engineer, with the help of a caliper and a bow compass.
Clara fully approved. She liked order and orderly people. He was the exact type of man she would be attracted to if she had time to be attracted to a man. He looked clean-cut and dependable.
She stifled a sigh. She had a lot of other things to take care of before she could focus on her personal life. Romance was not on her twelve-month schedule.
Not that she had her entire life mapped out in a spreadsheet. But she did have one-year, five-year, and ten-year plans, both for her private life and her career. She liked knowing where she was going and when and how she was going to get there. The very idea of people meandering through life gave her the heebie-jeebies.
She turned her attention from the marine back to the coffin that would probably be on her flight. The thought didn’t bother her. She’d done repatriations herself. While her job was search and rescue, there had been times when she’d reached her target too late and could only fly back with a body.
The remains of US citizens who died abroad were repatriated via the various US embassies, a streamlined procedure that took the grief of their families into consideration. The deceased were afforded all respect and dignity. The staff wasn’t just shipping boxes. The embassies had a system in place, and the people who ran it cared.
As Clara watched, the men closed the back door of the hearse and the car rolled away.
Within another minute, a black SUV pulled up with tinted windows, the Great Seal of the United States emblazoned on the front door in gold—a majestic eagle holding arrows in his talons on one side, an olive branch on the other.
The marine reached for her suitcase. “I’ll take that, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Corporal.”
She couldn’t wait to get back home. Tomorrow was her father’s first chemotherapy treatment, and she planned on being there with him. She wished she could do more, like donate a kidney or bone marrow, anything. There was absolutely nothing on this earth she wouldn’t do for her father. But she couldn’t do anything about prostate cancer.
Clara and the lost-and-found college student, who had disappeared in Acapulco on a birthday trip with friends, would get a marine escort to the airport. Then she would hand-deliver the delinquent frat boy, in exactly six hours and seventeen minutes, to his worried parents, who’d be waiting at Reagan National Airport in DC.
Clara had her schedule mapped out for the rest of the day, and she planned on sticking to it: hand over Bobby, then go home to her condo to drop off her luggage, shower and change. After that, she’d drive to her parents’ house to spend the night. She wanted to drive her father to the hospital in the morning.
She needed to get the schedule of his future appointments so she could go with him as many times as possible. She could take a leave of absence from work, if necessary. She liked her job—the investigations let her use her analytical skills, took her to interesting places, and she got to save people—but family would always come first.
As the marine stepped outside with her suitcase, Clara called back to the sleeping kid. “Time to go home.”
Bobby Lekker blinked awake slowly and stared at her for a long moment before he pushed to his feet.
He’d cleaned up using the embassy’s facilities, but the shadows of the three weeks he’d spent in a Mexican jail were still in his eyes as he lumbered toward her. He wore the jeans and T-shirt Clara bought him—nothing special, but he’d been ridiculously grateful.
“Thank you,” he said again, his sleep-laden voice filled with emotion. “I’m sorry I caused so much trouble.” He hung his head. “My dad’s gonna kill me.”
She gave him a reassuring smile. “Your parents are going to be extremely happy to see you. I promise.”
She was about to say more, but the clip-clop of high heels behind her made her turn. One of the embassy secretaries hurried toward them, a young woman in a sharp black suit and matching heels.
“Miss Roberts? You have a call, ma’am.”
All of Clara’s good feelings evaporated in an instant, startled right out of her. God, don’t let it be bad news. Not something about her father. He didn’t have another doctor’s appointment today, did he?
She called to the marine who was halfway to the car. “I’ll be right back.”
Then she hurried off after the secretary, who was already heading back into the maze of hallways that led to the administrative offices of the embassy.
Clara’s heart beat faster. “Who is it?”
But as she hurried down the hallway, her hand knocked against the cell phone in her pocket, and she knew a sudden moment of overwhelming relief. Her father—or her mother—wouldn’t call her at the US embassy in Mexico City. They would call her on her cell.
She slowed for a beat, relaxing her jaw. Then, with her next thought, her muscles tightened again. Why would anyone call her here? She cast a questioning look at the secretary, who still hadn’t told her who wanted to talk to her.
The woman waited until they were out of hearing distance from the corporal and Bobby, and even then, she kept her voice so low, Clara had to strain her ears to hear her. “The Department of Defense is on the line for you in the bubble room, ma’am.”
She’d sent in a case update last night so Bobby’s parents could be immediately notified that he’d been found. Why would her boss, Karin Kovacs, call her? Bobby Lekker’s case was straightforward. Clara had pulled off her target recovery without a hitch. She’d located and retrieved the kid within forty-eight hours of her arrival to Mexico.
All that time, his parents had been worried that their son had been kidnapped or worse, Bobby had been sitting in a small village jail for dancing down the street naked. The local police had misspelled his name, so when the first searches were run, he hadn’t come up in the system.
The secretary turned down the corridor. “This way, ma’am.”
They reached the small windowless room, the walls foot-thick metal to keep anyone from listening in. Most embassies had a microphone-proof “bubble room” where top-secret conversations could be conducted without being compromised, but Clara had never been inside one. Her job didn’t involve any state secrets.
She tried not to gawk too much as she glanced around. A round table stood in the middle of the room. An old-fashioned desk phone waited on the desk, with a single blinking red light.
As the secretary walked away, Clara stepped inside and closed the door behind her. The space was small, the ceiling low, leaving her feeling vaguely claustrophobic. Before she could start thinking about what would happen if the door locked on her, she picked up the receiver and pushed the button next to the blinking light. “Clara Roberts.”
“I’ll be connecting General Roberts, ma’am,” a friendly voice said on the other end. “Please hold for a moment.”
Then the general’s deep voice came on the line. “Clara?”
Alarm shot through her as she gripped the phone. “Are you okay, Dad?”
Her father was a retired general, the head of the Civilian Personnel Recovery Unit, a new, experimental department at the DOD where Clara worked. Not through nepotism. She’d been recruited independently, recommended for the position by her supervisor in her previous job at the FBI, long before it was known that General Roberts would be leading the department.
“I’m fine, honey,” he said.
“Is it Grandma Lucy?” Her eighty-year-old grandmother, her father’s mother, lived at an Alzheimer’s facility.
“She’s doing well. I talked to her this morning,” her father told her, but then he hesitated, which was very much out of character and did nothing to dispel Clara’s alarm, especially when he added, “I need your help.”
“I was just about to leave for the airport. I’ll be home in a couple of hours. I can head straight over instead of going to the condo first.”
Was something wrong with her mother?
Before she could ask, he said, again, his tone hesitant and…something else. “Someone I know disappeared in Mexico recently.”
Clara waited for more. Finding and retrieving US citizens missing abroad was what her unit, Civilian Personnel Recovery, did. But this was not how cases were assigned. Case assignments came from her boss, Karin Kovacs, accompanied by the case file and a brief strategy meeting at the office.
The general was the big boss, because the new department needed someone with status, someone the rest of the DOD wouldn’t just roll over, someone who could negotiate with the higher powers as needed. So General Roberts handled that, while Karin ran the day-to-day operations of the department and managed the investigators.
CPRU investigators worked on one case at a time. Technically, they couldn’t take on a new case until Karin signed off on the previous case, until all the paperwork was completed and all the reports filed.
Bureaucracy was an indelible part of any government work. Rules, rules, and more rules. Which suited Clara pretty well. She was a rules and regulations kind of girl, probably because she’d grown up as a military brat.
Life was much easier when you knew what was expected and had the ability to perform to those expectations. Rules made life dependable.
“Someone else from the embassy can escort your current recovery target back to DC,” her father was saying, his voice still off. “I’ll make the arrangements.” He paused, and in that brief gap, she identified the odd emotion in his tone: misery. “I’d like for you to stay where you are, if possible.”
Her brain scrambled to work out what was going on. “Will you be sending me the case file here?”
“No case file. It’s a personal matter. What I’m about to tell you is strictly confidential.”
From our own department?
Before Clara’s brain could catch up, her father went on with, “The recovery target is Rosita Ruiz. Last seen on July first in Furino, in the state of Chiapas. Long black hair, black eyes, five foot four inches tall, about a hundred and ten pounds. She has family in Furino that she was going to spend the summer with, a cousin, Melena Ruiz.”
Her father rattled off a street name and number.
Clara committed the information to memory, then asked, “Age?”
He hesitated once again before he said, “Eighteen.” He paused. “Nearly.”
Clara stared at the desk with a cold feeling spreading in her stomach. Why are we talking about this in the bubble room? Why is this an off-the-record case? “May I ask how you’re connected to the search target? It might help the investigation.”
Maybe it had something to do with the military. Military secrets. Espionage? Why wasn’t the CIA investigating?
A personal matter, he’d said.
She clenched her teeth. Her father was her hero. She didn’t want to hear what she feared she was about to hear. She stared at the phone, at the rows of buttons, wishing for one that stopped time right then and there.
She did receive a small reprieve. For several long moments, silence stretched on the line. Then her father took a deep breath on the other end.
“I’ve done something incredibly stupid.” Undisguised despair underscored his last words. “I’m sorry, Clara.”
Her heart sank. The bottom of her world fell out. She felt like that astronaut in the last movie they’d seen together, her cord from the spaceship snapped, spinning alone in space.
“How?” If this was true, then everything she’d believed in so far had been a lie, and she had trouble comprehending that. “I have a right to know.”
“I’m sorry,” More miserable silence. Then, “The day the doctor told me the cancer came back. Your mother had that benefit gala at the Ritz. She’s the committee chair, and she was receiving an award, had to go. I was going to go with her, but she told me to stay home and rest.”
Clara tried to remember, but her mother chaired a number of committees and received awards regularly for her charitable works, most having to do with veterans and children of veterans.
“The diagnosis caught me off guard,” her father was saying. “We were both reeling. We were going to tell you in the morning. After she left for the gala, I decided to sit by the pool. I suppose I was having myself a pity party. I had a couple of beers.”
Because he wouldn’t want his wife to see him upset. He’d want to be strong for her to the end. So he used what little alone time he had to let his fears and disappointments out. Clara wasn’t going to blame him for that. But anything else…
“It was Friday night,” he said. “Juanita had been there to clean earlier in the day. A young lady showed up, saying she was Juanita’s niece. She said she’d been helping her aunt and left her school bag in the laundry room. She needed her books to do homework over the weekend. I let her in.”
Clara stared at the empty wall. She knew Juanita, her parents’ new housekeeper. “Rosita Ruiz is Juanita’s niece?”
“I’m not going to say that I was too drunk to know what was happening. You deserve more than excuses.”
Damn right. Hot, blind anger swirled through her, an emotional tornado that left devastation in its wake. How could he betray his wife and daughter like that?
“I don’t remember much,” he said. “I’m sorry. That sounds like an excuse too.”
But Clara clamped onto it. She could have sworn on her life that her father wasn’t capable of something like this. “Maybe nothing happened. Did she say something happened? She could be lying.”
But he said, his voice dejected, “Apparently, I took pictures with my phone.”
Her heart broke then and there, because thatcertainly rang true.
Her father snapped pictures of everything. Photography was his only hobby. He had a shelf full of expensive cameras and, in addition, he always had whatever latest phone took the best pictures. Clara used to joke that they were the most documented family in the world.
But she was far from a joking mood at the moment. She was numb. Then a new terrible thought wedged itself among the other terrible thoughts that were already circling in her mind, and shock pushed the words from her mouth before she had a chance to reconsider.
“Have you done anything like this before? With other women?”
“No.” He sounded pained. “Never.”
“How can I believe you?” she whispered, her heart breaking a little more.
She closed her eyes for a moment. She didn’t want to hear excuses. And maybe he knew, because he didn’t give her any.
She swallowed. She couldn’t deal with the revelation, not right now. So she focused on the assignment she was being given. A seventeen-year-old had disappeared. Clara had to treat this as any other assignment.
Except that she hated the recovery target with a hot, burning passion.
“I’ll do my best to find her.”
“Juanita is really worried,” her father said. “Her niece told her what happened between us but made it sound as if we had some whole twisted relationship. Juanita has come to me to beg me to find the girl. If I don’t, I’m afraid she’ll go to your mother.”
Clara clenched her jaw. Something like this would kill her mother. Meredith Roberts was madly in love with her husband. She would be crushed beyond recovery. She hadn’t dealt well with the cancer coming back.
She’d been worrying so much, she made herself sick, and she had a weak heart to begin with, the result of some exotic virus she’d caught when Clara’s father had been stationed in Africa at the beginning of his military career, years before Clara’s birth.
To have a much-wanted child, her mother had risked pregnancy and labor, even knowing the stress on her heart might kill her. She’d survived, but she had a delicate constitution ever since Clara could remember, which never stopped Meredith Roberts from championing every cause and trying to save the world.
Her husband admired her deeply and loved her endlessly. He would have given his life for his wife at a moment’s notice—for his wife or his daughter. Clara had never doubted that for a second.
This whole Rosita situation was a non sequitur. Someone else’s life.
Suddenly, Clara lost her grip on who her father was, felt as if she no longer knew him. But if she knew one thing, it was that she was going to protect her mother.
“I’ll find the girl,” she heard herself say. Think of it as nothing more than your next case. Forget the personal connection.
Then her father was talking, but, her brain a beehive, Clara missed most of it. “Sir?”
Just in that moment, she couldn’t call him dad.
She normally called him sir in work situations.
His office wasn’t on the same level as Clara’s. She reported to Karin Kovacs and not him. Clara and her father had little interaction at work, which they’d always kept professional, both wanting to avoid even the shadow of any favoritism in the workplace.
He repeated the information now, giving her the rest of the details of the case.
She blinked hard, then looked up at the low metal ceiling and kept blinking so she wouldn’t cry. She couldn’t go back to Bobby Lekker and the marine corporal with tears in her eyes. I’m a professional. Deep breath. I can and will handle this with full professionalism.
Her father finished the briefing with, “You will not be filing an official report.”
She cleared her throat. “No, sir.”
“You report straight to me.”
“Time is of the utmost importance. Two weeks have passed already since the disappearance. Juanita didn’t find out until Rosita missed their weekly phone call. Then she waited for progress from the local police for another week before giving up and coming to me.”
“Who will be my in-house connection?”
Clara would need research done, not to mention remote access to various law enforcement databases. And the state of Chiapas was several hundred miles to the south of Mexico City. She would need plane tickets, rental car, lodging—travel arrangements usually made by the office manager, Elaine Fisher. Elaine, at the very least, would definitely have to be involved.
But her father said, “No in-house connection. I am wiring you funds personally.”
She swallowed. No in-house assistance. Which was completely against the rules. Then again, none of this made any sense.
“Okay. As far as the department is concerned, I’ve caught a nasty virus and I’m in a local hospital, hooked up to IV. I need rest, so I won’t be checking in with work. It’d be best if I didn’t talk to anyone until the mission is completed.”
“Thank you.” The general’s voice was filled with emotion. He cleared his throat. “I arranged for a local facilitator in Furino. His name is Light Walker. Don’t do anything until you talk to him. He said he can meet you at the village guesthouse around Thursday.”
Okay. Doable. “Is he with the local police?”
“The local police are not to be trusted. You’ll need to fly under their radar.”
So the facilitator was a civilian. Her department normally worked with whoever the local investigator was on the given case, usually the local cops. Unless the local cops were completely corrupt.
“Walker will help you with whatever you need,” her father said. “He’ll take you around and make sure you’ll safely get where you need to go.”
Sounded like a local travel guide to make up for her not having office backup on this case—a substitute Elaine.
Silence stretched on the line. Her father had finished with the instructions and was probably unsure about what to say next. To have him be unsure about anything was beyond surreal. Clara felt as if he was a different person suddenly, a stranger she no longer recognized.
She drew a ragged breath. “Don’t tell Mom.”
All her life, when everything had always been in upheaval—the dozens of houses they’d lived in, the countless schools she’d attended, the revolving door of friends—the one constant had been the living, breathing love that filled her family.
Her parents loved her and each other. And she loved them. One maybe a little more than the other. She loved her mother too, but from the first moment Clara could remember, her father had been her knight in shining armor, the hero in the uniform she respected who made her feel safe. As far as she’d been concerned, he could do no wrong.
Suddenly she was so angry, she was choking on it. She hated him at this moment, and she felt guilty for the emotion, then even angrier at him for having to feel guilty. Because she couldn’t hate him. Because he was dying.
Prostate cancer was one of the most curable cancers. Most men recovered. But not all. Her father’s cancer was back, and this time, the diagnosis was dire. He’d been given six months, with chemo and radiation. That alone was so incredibly unfair it made her want to scream.
And now this.
He’d served in five wars and earned countless medals. But if the indiscretion came out, his reputation would be forever tarnished. The moral failure was all everyone was going to remember him for. This was how her mother would have to remember him.
“I’m not asking for your help for myself,” he said.
She blinked at the phone.
She’d been focused on her mother and herself, but suddenly she saw the wider implications. The Civilian Personnel Recovery Unit only existed because of General Roberts. If his involvement with Rosita got out and caused a scandal… If the general had to resign, Civilian Personnel Recovery could be disassembled as quickly as it had been created.
He’d been looking for a replacement since the day he’d found out he only had six months to live, but he didn’t have anyone selected yet, just a loose list of possible candidates.
Plenty of higher-ups at the DOD questioned the need for CPRU’s existence. The army had Personnel Recovery for military members and Department of Defense contractors who went missing abroad, but those were people the government had sent into harm’s way, and their recovery came out of the army’s budget.
The argument had been made, over and over, that US civilians who went missing abroad had taken their chances going there in the first place. Why should taxpayers be responsible for helping people out of trouble they had gotten themselves into? If they couldn’t take care of themselves, they should have stayed home.
Of course, the counterargument was that, A: the United States government should provide protection to its citizens regardless of location, and B: kidnapped citizens could be used as leverage by terrorist organizations, so the problem was really a matter of national security.
Clara silently ran through what little information she had on the case, as her father said, “The DEA has an office near Furino, in Mercita. If you run into trouble or find that Rosita’s disappearance is somehow drug related, you’ll find help there.”
US law enforcement nearby was a comforting thought. The Drug Enforcement Agency worked with the Mexican government in the war against drugs as close allies. They had several offices in Mexico, but still…
“I’d rather not reach out to official US channels.”
“Your safety is more important than my reputation,” her father said firmly, then cleared his throat. “First step is to find out whether the girl is still alive. If she is, we need to see if the situation can be solved by something as simple as a transfer of funds. If the case is more complicated than that, we’ll come up with a strategy at that point. You are an investigator, not a SWAT team. I want you to observe all precautions.”
She wanted to say a lot more, but swallowed it all back because none of it would have been particularly helpful.
Silence stretched between them.
“I’m sorry,” her father told her again.
But Clara couldn’t give him absolution.
All she could give was a promise. “I’ll find her.”
She clenched her jaw and put the receiver back in its cradle, because she couldn’t say what she’d always said: Good-bye. I love you, Dad.
Her eyes burning, she walked to the heavy door, opened it, then hurried back to let Bobby Lekker know about the change of plans. She didn’t have much time. She needed to get going. The sooner this whole horrible incident was behind her, the better.
She had to find Rosita. Whatever Clara had to do, she could not fail.