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
Town of Furino, Chiapas State, Mexico, 4 days later
Clara doubted she’d make it halfway to the door, if the men caught her spying.
The dim, one-room cantina ten miles from Mexico’s southern border reeked of booze, smoke, and sweat, the haphazardly arranged tables and chairs—none of which matched—the very picture of chaos. The scene was an affront to Clara’s senses as she sat in the darkest corner. The place made her scalp itch.
Three freaking days wasted.
But no matter what it took, she was going to make progress today.
She’d snuck into the cantina during a loud argument—every man on his feet, gesturing wildly and waving weapons. Her dark baseball hat pulled over her face, she’d skirted the wall and hurried to the farthest table in the back. Since then, she’d been doing her best to stay invisible so she might overhear something resembling a lead.
Her cases tended to progress smoothly from point A to point B and beyond. Not this one. She’d been waiting for Walker since Wednesday night, renting a room at the dilapidated, rooster-infested guesthouse across the road.
At least the cantina was chicken-free. Mostly woman-free too. Dressed for undercover work in a plain T-shirt, faded jeans, and a pair of well-broken-in cowboy boots, Clara was hoping anyone who wasn’t looking too hard would mistake her for a boy.
Where in hell was her facilitator?
How could her father hook her up with someone so unreliable?
Clara hadn’t talked to the general since the embassy. She tried to keep her feelings bottled up on the subject. But she’d called her mother to ask how her father’s first chemo treatment had gone, and to tell her that she loved her. At one point, she would have to deal with her father’s mess, but she was determined to find Rosita first. She wanted to hear straight from the girl what had happened.
As she kept scanning the room, her gaze snagged on the largest of the men. The others called him El Capitán. He could have walked straight out of an old Western: ammo belts crisscrossing his round belly, silver pistols by his sides in silver-studded holsters, black boots, black pants, black shirt, black sombrero—all embroidered with silver thread.
His greasy mustache hung to his double chin, bracketing a cruel, fleshy mouth. Clara strained to hear—without appearing to listen—what he was saying.
The captain sat about fifteen feet from her, four empty tables between them. She could only see him in profile, but then, as if sensing someone watching him, he swung his head toward her. His beady brown eyes fastened on Clara. He stilled for a moment before flashing a yellow-toothed grin.
“Gringa! When did you come in?” he shouted over in heavily accented English. “Come here. Let Pedro look at you.”
Clara bit back a groan. So much for her disguise of a boy. All eyes were on her suddenly, narrowed, disapproving gazes, and more than a few predatory leers.
“Come on, gringa. I don’t bite.” The captain’s lips stretched into a toothy, suggestive smile. He winked. “And when I do, you’ll like it.”
She’d seen the captain before from her window at the guesthouse, always with at least a dozen well-armed thugs around him, people scampering out of his way on the street. If she had to make a guess, she’d guess he was the baddest bad guy in Furino.
She must have hesitated too long, because he pushed heavily to his feet and walked toward her, his boots shaking the rough-hewn wood floor with each step.
His smile didn’t reach his eyes as he stopped in front of her table. “What brings you to Furino?”
“Writing a book about the Mayan sites.” She reached down behind the cover of the table as if to scratch her leg in a nervous gesture, pulled her Glock from her cowboy boot, and lay the gun on her lap.
Bringing a weapon into the country, even a pocket knife, was illegal, but her father had arranged for a small Glock through the marines at the US Consulate in Merida, along with a temporary embassy ID that would grant her diplomatic immunity if she was caught with the firearm.
She didn’t want to use the gun. She was to avoid doing anything that would bring her to the attention of local law enforcement. Hopefully, she wouldn’t have to shoot. She had a fair idea that this was just a pissing contest, Pedro exerting his dominance.
The man reached for her. He didn’t waste time on asking; he went straight to taking what he wanted. “You give Pedro a kiss, and I buy you a drink.”
He wiggled his moustache, his fat fingers closing around her arm and biting into her skin as he roughly yanked her to her feet.
But by the time they were chest to chest, she had her gun at his double chin.
Something dark and dangerous stirred in his eyes as he stilled, a cold and calculating expression hardening his features.
She’d underestimated how high his blood Neanderthal level was. She saw death on his face as clearly as if the words judge, jury, and executioner were tattooed on his pockmarked skin.
Should have let him kiss me.
Instead, she had initiated a deadly confrontation. Back down. Turn it around. They stood in the darkest corner, his large body blocking sight of her and her gun from his men. He hadn’t lost face. He could still let this go. They could still have a laugh over the misunderstanding. He could decide he liked her for being spunky.
She plastered a smile on her face and opened her mouth to diffuse the situation, but the back door banged open and a scrawny kid burst in, yelling for Pedro, then yelling something else in Spanish so rapidly Clara had no hope of comprehending a word.
Pedro dropped his hand from her arm. “You wait here until I come back.”
If doom had a voice, she’d just heard it.
But as Pedro walked out, Clara sat back down instead of running. He could find her anywhere in town. She couldn’t exactly blend in and disappear in a place the size of Furino.
And she wasn’t going to run, in any case. She had come here to retrieve a disappeared person. She was going to take Rosita home. Then she was going to let her father handle the rest however he wanted to handle it. At that point, her job would be to stand by her mother.
She pushed those thoughts aside and refocused on the cantina. She needed to keep in investigator mode. Don’t think about the personal connection.
From what she’d overheard so far, Pedro was Furino’s “godfather.” Clara doubted much went on in town he wasn’t involved in or didn’t give his permission to at least.
Now she just had to establish some kind of rapport with the guy and get him talking. She slipped her gun back into her boot. Let’s not remind El Capitán of that little misstep, shall we?
She waved over the waitress the men called Margarita. “Could I have a bottle of tequila with two clean glasses, please?”
The order would take most of the pesos she’d stuffed into her pocket before coming over, but she needed something to break the ice with El Capitán.
The waitress cast Clara a baleful look. The women who served the men at the cantina also took the time to sit on the men’s laps and fondle them, and periodically take a customer in the back. Maybe Margarita thought Clara would be competition.
But after a glance at the swarthy bartender, who gave a barely perceptible nod, the waitress said, “Sí, señorita.”
In Mexico, most cantinas didn’t allow women unless they were prostitutes. But since El Capitán had said he’d be back for her, Clara was safe from removal for the moment.
As Margarita sashayed her petite but voluptuous figure back to the bar, Clara made no comparisons between the waitress’s exotic feminine allure and her own tall, flat body. Nobody would ever call her a sensuous beauty. She dealt with it. She had other admirable qualities.
When Margarita brought her order, Clara cleaned the glasses on her T-shirt, then lined them up neatly with the bottle.
She scanned the room again. Her facilitator could advise her on the local criminal element. She resisted grinding her teeth.
She’d gone to work at Civilian Personnel Recovery specifically because the missions were lone-wolf operations. She did not, as a rule, work with a partner. And she most certainly did not work with partners who made appointments around Thursday.
The amount of time she’d wasted waiting for that idiot…
At least she’d talked to Rosita’s cousin and found out more about the circumstances of the young woman’s disappearance. And she’d gone to the Mayan ruins, plus walked around town to play up her cover as a travel writer, acting like the average American tourist. She’d used the time to get the lay of the land. And she’d made a game of picking out the main local players—none of whom inspired any confidence.
The majority of the town’s shady-looking characters seemed to end up at the cantina at least once a day. Unsavory-character Grand Central. If a crime had been committed in Furino, these were the men who’d had a hand in it.
Most of the banditos sitting around the tables seemed capable of kidnapping. Or straight-out murder. Aggravated murder wasn’t out of the question either.
Her local connection, if he ever showed, should be able to give her some real understanding of the local criminal power structure. She hoped he was good at what he did, even if he was just some hippie who’d come down for the spiritual Mayan sites located around the small town of Furino, then stayed for the tequila and the weed.
She’d run into a few of those already. One Canadian guy ran a bicycle rental; another old hippie from Jersey sold tie-dyed T-shirts with Mayan symbols superimposed over psychedelic swirls.
She expected her facilitator to be a mellowed-out travel agent slash travel guide who could help her with the maze of dirt roads that weren’t on any map and didn’t show up on her GPS. The area had a number of indigenous villages without names, logging camps, and temporary shanty towns where people fleeing South America stopped to rest on their way farther north.
She hoped the guy was on his way instead of permanently delayed somewhere, pushing up agaves. Anything could happen to a man, or a woman, down here.
Clara pulled her baseball hat deep over her face and listened to the resumed conversations around her.
The talk centered on the local armadillo races and Chiapas FC’s chances in an upcoming soccer match at Tuxtla Gutiérrez. The two events seemed to hold equal importance for the patrons.
She looked for patterns: who talked to whom, who deferred to whom, who watched whom with suspicion. In the past hour, she’d identified five distinct groups, each with its own captain, with El Capitán being the overall head honcho.
Drug runners? Gun runners? Human traffickers?
Before she could figure it out, the front door banged open, and she turned that way, still hoping for her travel guide, finding herself staring at a mercenary who looked like he’d just stepped out of one of those high-testosterone video games.
Okay. Wow. Because…wow.
A machete strapped to his back, a semiautomatic slung over his shoulder, a handgun in the side holster, and an army knife on his belt, he walked into the cantina with a swagger that said he could beat any man in town and could take any woman to bed. If he wanted.
He was taller than the locals, his hair a few shades lighter, a couple of days’ worth of bristle covering the lower half of his face. He wore army boots, cargo pants, and a black T-shirt that did nothing to conceal a distracting amount of muscle. White flashed as he chomped on the cigar between his teeth, his eyes covered by sunglasses.
Clara slid down in her chair and backed farther into the shadows as she watched him. So Pedro wasn’t alpha dog of the local pack. Thisguy was most definitely the top predator in Furino. His body language seemed completely relaxed, yet power emanated from his every pore.
All around, hands surreptitiously migrated to the tops of the tables, as if making sure the newcomer didn’t accidentally misinterpret any move as someone going for a weapon.
The mercenary claimed the empty stool at the far end of the bar. He didn’t ask for a drink. The bartender poured him one anyway. He didn’t so much as crook an eyebrow at a woman. But Margarita went to sit on his lap and rubbed against his well-built chest like a cat. She just about purred.
The waitress’s lustrous mahogany hair tumbled to her waist in waves, curling and swinging all over the place. She looked wild and free. Clara touched a hand to the strict bun tucked under her baseball hat.
The mercenary tossed back his drink with one hand while putting the other one on Margarita’s bare knee, running his palm up her thigh, under her short red skirt. He bent to her neck and nibbled her. Or maybe whispered something into her ear, because Margarita laughed. And then he was laughing too, a throaty sound of pure seduction.
One second, Clara was glaring at them with annoyed disapproval, and the next she suddenly felt her own skin heat, as if the man was touching her, his callused palm running over her naked skin. A long-neglected part of her body tingled, waving a flag. Hey, remember me?
At the bar, Margarita flattened her palms against the muscles of the mercenary’s chest and caressed them, moving lower and lower.
Clara blinked. What the hell was wrong with them? Then she clenched her jaw. What the hell was wrong with her?
It had to be the heat. A dozen fans whirled overhead, swirling the hot, humid air without providing much relief.
The mercenary chatted on with the bartender, as if being publicly fondled was par for the course for him, certainly nothing to remove his sunglasses over.
Appalling. Both his behavior, and that Clara would feel hot and bothered from simply watching the outrageous bastard.
Then he finally slid off his glasses, and the next second his unerring gaze pinned Clara, and it was too late to turn away or slide down in her chair, because he’d caught her watching him.
He gave a knowing smirk as he shooed the waitress off his lap and patted her curvy behind. He never looked at the woman again as he sauntered toward Clara, six feet of pure muscle and laser-focused attention.
The scene should have been the opening shot of an action movie—light glinting off hills of muscles, determination in every masculine move, a cocksure grin. Casting directors all over Hollywood would have peed their pants at the sight of this guy.
He dropped into the chair across from Clara, his muscled thighs spread. She clamped her own thighs together. His white teeth flashed in the dim light of the cantina as he chomped on his cigar and took stock of her.
“Are you lost, Cupcake?” His I’m-a-bad-boy-and-you-know-it voice scraped along her nerve endings. He was definitely American. East Coast, if she had to guess from his accent.
Her grandmother used to say there were men the devil put on earth to test good women. Clara was tempted to ask the guy whether he’d just zip-lined in from hell.
“Go away,” she said instead.
His smile was worth a thousand words, most of them dirty. His voice dipped. “How can I, when your eyes begged me to come over?”
She rolled said eyes so hard, she might have caused permanent damage.
One: she hadn’t begged in her life.
Two: the only thing she wanted was to hit him over the head with the bottle of tequila between them on the table. She was trying to keep a low profile, and he was drawing every eye to them.
He smiled around his cigar. “What’s your name?”
DOD Investigator Clara Roberts, she badly wanted to say to wipe the superior smirk off his face. “None of your business.”
His eyes were a brilliant multicolor green like the rainforest, alive and full of secrets. He let his gaze travel over her chest from left to right, then from right to left with undisguised disappointment.
He tsked. “No tits, no manners.” He shook his head. “You should try to have at least one or the other. A pair of great tits covers a multitude of sins.”
When his gaze reached hers again, the very fires of hell glinting in his eyes, he said magnanimously, “Don’t worry about it, Cupcake. You look like the brainy type. Believe it or not, that appeals to some men. I think I read that on the Internet.” He edged his chair forward until their knees touched under the table.
A tingle ran up her thighs at the contact. She shifted her legs away from his. “Please leave.”
“I can’t. You need me.” He flashed an infuriatingly cocky grin. “Walker.”
Her mouth dropped open. Light Walker? The hippie travel guide Walker? The one she’d been picturing with long, thinning hair, wearing a tie-dye shirt?
Why on earth would her father send his daughter to a man like this?
Before Clara could figure out what to do with Walker, Pedro stalked back into the cantina. El Capitán was yelling obscenities over his shoulder to whomever he’d been talking to outside. Then the door swung shut behind him, and his gaze swept the room and settled on Clara.
His mouth twisted into a snarl as he strode toward her. “You’re coming with me.” He narrowed his eyes at Walker. “The puta is mine.”
Walker rose in a measured move and stood toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose with the captain, all easy like, displaying none of Pedro’s bustle. The cantina fell silent around them. The hostile looks they exchanged said the two men knew each other, but there was no love lost between them.
Clara wouldn’t have minded knowing what their relationship was exactly.
Pedro’s eyes narrowed another notch. “I don’t have time to argue. Don’t get into the middle of this, gringo.”
Walker hesitated only for a second, then his expression hardened as if he’d come to some sort of decision.
“I’m pressed for time myself,” he said around his cigar and pulled his knife from his belt in a lightning-quick move, shoved the blade into the man’s abdomen, and yanked up hard.
Clara had no time to react other than jumping to her feet. Her gore rose from the wet sound of the blade being pulled back. She stared wide-eyed as the captain grabbed his belly to hold in his guts, a stunned look on his pockmarked face.
And suddenly she could smell the contents of his stomach.
Oh God. She swallowed hard so she wouldn’t gag. She needed to look away, but she couldn’t.
She’d never killed a man. Unlike in action movies, most law enforcement officers never killed in their entire careers. She’d certainly never seen a man disemboweled. Light Walker, on the other hand, hadn’t so much as blinked.
Before she could fully recover, Walker shoved the man onto the nearest chair, then reached across the small table, practically pulled Clara over it as he hauled her against him. He spit out his cigar and slanted his lips over hers in a primal gesture of claiming, his left hand all over her butt, while his right hand wiped then put away the knife and went for the semiautomatic to hold the room at bay.
Her head—and her stomach—were still reeling when his lips pulled away from hers as abruptly as they’d swooped in.
“Chica’s mine for the night. Whoever wants her tomorrow, you work that out amongst yourselves,” he said to the den of thieves in general, then sauntered to the back door without letting go of her.
Pedro sat slumped over in the chair, a pool of blood spreading on the floorboards under him. His men rushed to his side. Since the altercation had taken place in the dark corner, they probably hadn’t fully seen what had happened.
And Clara didn’t want to be there when they figured out the particulars. She didn’t protest when Walker pulled her through the back door. Stunned speechless, she followed him.
Her “facilitator” wasn’t a hippy travel guide. He was a stone-cold killer.
The door swung closed at their backs, and Clara squinted into sunshine as Walker dragged her down the rickety wooden steps, his arm a metal band around her middle. The level of noise behind them in the cantina doubled, then tripled, a beehive that had been disturbed. The shock of Pedro’s sudden death was wearing off at last.
“Now what?” she asked, not that she was admitting that Walker was calling the shots. Maybe for the moment. But any second now, she was going to get her act together and take charge.
“Now we run.” Walker let go of her waist, grabbed her wrist, then sprinted forward, crossing the dirt road that was lined by derelict houses on each side, the cantina and the guesthouse the best of the bunch.
He dragged her toward the jungle that began a hundred feet or so behind her guesthouse, and she did her best to keep up, wondering if she could outrun an army of drunken bandits. And whether the bandits were any worse than the man she was running with.
To be completely honest, she wasn’t entirely sure if she was being rescued or kidnapped.
( I hope you enjoyed the chapters! If you pre-ordered the book, it’ll be on your Kindle tonight to finish. I hope I won’t keep you up too late. Oh, who am I kidding, I hope I do! —Dana)