LYNN SHOLES & JOE MOORE
© 2015 by Lynn Sholes & Joe Moore
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher.
Any unauthorized usage of the text without express written permission of the publisher is a violation of the authors’ copyright and is illegal and punishable by law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the authors’ imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Published by Stone Creek Books
Oakland Park, Florida
Interior design by Joe Moore
Cover design by Joe Moore
Cover image © 2015
For Margaret Dinn, who instilled in me
the wonder of the written word.
~ Lynn Sholes
For Sydney Archer Moore
~ Joe Moore
Special thanks to The Unknown Brewing Company in Charlotte, NC, and especially to Lisa Shell.
“The rhythmical vibrations pass through the earth with almost no loss of energy. It becomes possible to convey mechanical effects to the greatest terrestrial distances and produce all kinds of unique effects. The invention could be used with destructive effect in war.”
~ Nicola Tesla
“They died to make the desert bloom.”
~ Inscription on plaque at Hoover Dam
Because of the 112 lives lost during its construction, the Hoover Dam is sometimes referred to as
Lynn Sholes & Joe Moore
Chapter 1 – Most Wanted
I sat in the backseat of the unmarked SUV and watched the armor-plated Mercedes limo pull up in front of La Pampa, an Argentinean steakhouse a block away. “Is that his car?”
“Yes, Agent Decker,” said Colonel Marquez from the front seat as he studied the limousine through binoculars.
Marquez headed a special unit of the Mexican Federal Police whose mission was to capture Pablo Garcia, the man at the top of the most wanted list and ranked by Forbes Magazine as one of the richest men in the world. Besides being responsible for the lion’s share of all drug trafficking in North America, Garcia collected priceless art objects, most of which were stolen and moved through the black market. That’s why I was involved—a former OSI agent and now a consultant for the FBI, I was often requested by foreign governments to help in the recovery of missing antiquities—my specialty.
Marquez turned to the driver. “Tell all units to stand by.” The officer relayed the message into a hand-held radio to the police commandos positioned throughout the surrounding business district.
“Agent Decker,” Colonel Marquez said, “just a reminder that once I give the order to move in, you are to stay here and wait until the all-clear. Do you understand?”
“You are here to identify the stolen art objects at Garcia’s home—not to get involved in this capture operation.” He looked at me using the mirror on the back of the sun visor.
I nodded. He’d already reminded me of my role several times earlier, and his constant recaps irked me.
“There,” the driver said and pointed.
Marquez raised the binoculars. “That’s Ernesto Cesar, Director of Banco de Nacional. Most of the cartel’s money is laundered through Cesar.”
“Can I see?” I asked. Marquez turned toward me, paused and frowned, but he handed me spare binoculars. We both watched the two men, obviously bodyguards, who had already exited the limo and stood curbside. The one Marquez identified as Cesar was a slim, well-dressed man who strolled into the restaurant. A moment later, a second man, short, pudgy, dressed in jeans and open collar shirt, stepped from the limo. He held a cell phone to his ear that partially blocked his profile, and wore a pulled-down baseball cap. Unlike the banker, he moved briskly into the restaurant.
“That’s our mark,” Marquez said.
“Are you sure the second guy is Pablo Garcia?” I put the binoculars down. “Seems his face was too obstructed. What if he’s a decoy?”
Marquez didn’t answer but kept his focus on the entrance to La Pampa. Finally, he said to his driver, “Tell all units I’m going in for a positive identification.” Again his eyes met mine in the visor mirror. “Stay here, Agent Decker.”
Dressed in civilian clothes, the colonel and the driver got out and casually crossed the busy city street, heading for the restaurant. I knew I had placed enough doubt in the colonel’s mind that he had to confirm it was Garcia before giving the order to begin the takedown.
I grabbed the binoculars again. Marquez and the driver moved as if they were tourists, pausing to glance in the storefronts. There was serious doubt back at the FBI Task Force in Dallas that the Mexicans were on the up-and-up when it came to corruption, payoffs, and taking down a man as powerful as Garcia. So far, they appeared to be as tight and focused as any law enforcement organization I’d dealt with. But they hadn’t captured the drug kingpin yet.
I rested the binoculars on the seat and glanced in several directions to see if I could spot any sign of the commandos. Nothing. Only tourists and others moving along the sidewalks. That’s when I spotted the Cadillac Escalade pulling to the curb thirty meters behind our SUV. A dark-skinned man got out, opened the side door, and retrieved a slender object about a meter long, wrapped in what looked like brown butcher paper. Too big for a gun. He moved across the sidewalk, opened the door of a building and disappeared inside.
A second man stepped from the Escalade and surveyed the sidewalk in both directions. As he turned in my direction, I saw the thick curly head of hair, the round, boyish face with a bushy mustache, and small black eyes set too close—those distinctive features I had memorized from a photo of him during the flight down to Mexico. I watched as Pablo Garcia followed his friend through the door and into the building.
I put the binoculars to my eyes and searched in the other direction for Marquez and his driver. They were standing a block away in front of La Pampa Restaurant with their backs to me, the colonel talking on his phone. If I called him, he’d see my caller ID and no doubt ignore me. For all I knew he was giving the command to start the assault. I thought of blowing the car horn to attract his attention, but that would also draw the attention of the two targets in the restaurant—the same problem if I got out and started yelling for the colonel’s attention. With no other choice, I pulled up the right leg of my jeans and removed the Walther PPK strapped to my calf. Slipping out of the SUV, I moved at a swift pace to the door on the side of the building Garcia had entered. I reached for the knob, determined to follow the most wanted man on the planet.
Chapter 2 – Dead or Alive
The building was much older than the surrounding structures. I found a well-worn set of dry-rotting stairs leading up to the second-floor landing. With each step the wood creaked. My heart stuttered fearing someone would hear me. If caught, I’d be a dead woman within seconds. I wasn’t dealing with some penny-ante punk who’d shoplifted. Garcia’s barbaric reputation was well established.
Sweat dribbled down my back as I entered a short hallway ending with two doors that I guessed to be offices. Falling plaster powdered the floor, leaving evidence of footsteps made by the men I followed. Whatever the occupants paid to rent these offices, it was too much.
I stopped to listen but heard nothing.
I tracked the prints to the next flight of stairs that continued up to the third-floor landing. There I found a repeat of the second floor—a couple of doors with faded names of bygone businesses. Again I stood and listened to the distant sounds of traffic beyond the old walls.
One of the doors opened, and a gray-haired woman came out. She had a mop in one hand and a bucket in the other. At least one office in the building had to be somewhat clean. She didn’t seem surprised to see me holding a gun aimed at her. I pointed at my FBI ID hanging around my neck.
In my best Spanish, I said, “¿Has visto a dos hombres?”
She studied me, cocked her head, and turned her gaze to the last set of stairs. I nodded a thank you and motioned with my gun for her to go back into the office. Then I took the stairs that ended at a metal door. The powdery footprints faded. I assumed I’d found access to the roof.
The floor creaked again with my last step. I froze, waiting for the door to burst open and a hail of bullets to come my way. I stood as still as possible, gripped my Walther and aimed at the door. Thirty seconds passed, but it seemed like hours. When nothing happened, I opened the door a narrow crack. Sunlight streamed in. I peered through. No one was in sight. Had the woman with the mop lied? Garcia was a folk hero to many in Mexico—a Spanish Robin Hood. I needed to be vigilant.
I pushed the door open a bit more and saw a tar rooftop with shingle patches too numerous to count. From what I could see, there was a handful of metal vents, rusted with age, and an equal number of corroded air conditioner coverings.
Near the front of the building, the side that faced the street below and the La Pampa restaurant, two men stood peering over the edge. One I recognized as the driver of the Escalade. He had unwrapped the long object—the butcher paper curled in a light breeze at his feet. The object, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher rested on his shoulder. His eye pressed against the scope, and his hand gripped the trigger handle. The angle of the RPG told me he must be targeting the restaurant.
Two meters to his side stood Pablo Garcia.
I gently pushed the door open enough for me to pass through, estimating I was twelve or so meters away from the men. Aiming my Walther on Garcia’s back, I took a step forward. A loud whoosh filled the air, followed by an earth-shaking blast. A second later, black smoke billowed up from below.
The two turned away from the scene and headed across the roof toward the door—and me.
At the sight of my gun leveled at them, both stopped.
“Drop the weapon! Hands up!” I shouted over the screams, car alarms, and chaos from the street.
The driver looked at Garcia. Receiving a nod, he slowly lowered the RPG launcher to the rooftop. The drug lord took a step away as the driver pulled a gun from his waistband. Before he could raise it, I fired, hitting him in the abdomen. He dropped onto the roof, yelping like an injured dog and gripping his stomach. His gun skittered away.
Garcia turned and ran for the cover of a nearby storage shed.
“Alto!” I yelled. I had the Walther trained on him, ready to fire, never figuring he would halt, but he did. “Put both hands on top of your head. Ahora!”
He didn’t respond, so I took a few more steps toward him, both hands steadying my PPK. “Now, asshole, or you’re toast. Muerto.”
“If you move, the wind will be whistling between your eyes and out the back of your skull. I hope the hell you understand English.”
I stood in front of him. “How’s your day going, Pablo?”
“Who are you?” His eyes seemed to be gauging me.
“Sorry about your friend.” I took a quick glance at the driver. He had stopped moaning and looked unconscious or dead. Back at Garcia, I said, “I’m Maxine Decker, a consultant for the FBI here to identify all the stolen property you’ve stashed away back at your hacienda.
“A consultant? You’re not even a federal agent?”
“Retired OSI Special Agent. Now I travel around capturing super villains on rooftops.”
“You have a smart mouth.”
“My mom used to say that. Now drop to your knees. Nice and slow.”
As he eased down, he said, “I can make you one of the richest women in the world.”
“That’s very generous. Lean back on your heels.”
“You can have anything you want. Nothing will be too much. You can live like a queen.”
“Thanks, but I’m not into the royalty thing so much. Reach back and grab your ankles.”
“Simply turn the other way until I’m gone, and you’ll have all you ever wanted.”
“You’re pushing my buttons, Pablo, and you don’t want to do that. Grab your damn ankles.”
Garcia reached behind and grunted as he leaned back—his overweight body didn’t help.
“Why did you blow up the restaurant?”
“Ernesto Cesar was a traitor. He stole from me.”
I leaned forward until we were eye to eye. “Open your mouth.”
“¡Vete al diablo!”
I didn’t understand much Spanish, but I got what he said. “No, I’m not the one going to hell. That would be you, my friend. Open your mouth or I’ll simply blow your face off right now.”
As he reluctantly did so, I shoved the PPK in so hard I knew I must have chipped some teeth. “I’m very nervous right now. Don’t make this gun go off by accident.”
Spittle built up in the corners of his mouth, and I could smell the stench of his sweat. His breathing burst in and out as his eyes filled with fear and rage. That was good. He got the message.
With my left hand, I removed my cell phone and dialed Colonel Marquez. I prayed he would answer. There was a good chance he could have been caught in the explosion.
“Agent Decker, are you all right?”
“Yes,” I said.
His tone turned from concern to being pissed off. “I ordered you to stay in the SUV. It’s total destruction down here. Where the hell are you?”
“On the roof across from the restaurant.”
There was a moment of silence. I could hear frightened voices through his phone. “Get back down here,” Marquez said. “I don’t have time for your disobedience.”
“I shot and may have killed the man who fired the RPG. And I have Pablo Garcia here gagging on my gun.”
Another momentary pause. “We’re on our way.”
I was pretty sure it would annoy Marquez to have to come to me to collect his prisoner. I’d stolen his thunder. But if he’d listened to me in the first place when I suggested the man he pegged as Garcia might be a decoy, he’d be up here rather than me.
I smiled at the drug lord. “Some of my friends want to meet you.”
He tried to say something, probably his final offer to make me rich. But the gun turned his words into gibberish.
It couldn’t have been more than one minute before Marquez burst through the door followed by so many Federales that I feared the roof might not support the weight.
Once we were surrounded by an abundance of assault rifles aimed at Garcia, Colonel Marquez placed his hand on my shoulder and gently but firmly pulled me away. “I’ll take it from here, Agent Decker.”
Yeah, I guess so. I backed up until I was standing with the circle of commandos. Marquez hovered over Garcia. Then he leaned forward and whispered into the drug lord’s ear. He spoke for about thirty seconds, and I watched Garcia’s expression shift to pure terror. His face ashened.
The colonel took a step back and spoke in Spanish. ¡Chinga tu madre! He raised his gun and fired. The bullet made a neat, round hole in the Mexican’s forehead. There was nothing neat about what it did to the back of his skull. He collapsed, his life gone in an instant.
Everyone stood silently until the colonel holstered his gun. Then, as a group, they moved to the roof exit. The finality and brutality of the action struck me. As Marquez walked past, I said, “You killed him. I thought you wanted him alive?”
“We did Agent Decker. Long enough for me to pass sentence and perform the execution. Why waste money on a trial for this pig? All of Mexico thanks you for that. You are the hero who brought down the great Pablo Garcia. Be proud.”
“What did you say to him?”
“I simply recited the names of all my family members that he murdered or had killed.”
“And the last thing you said?”
“It is not fit for a lady’s ears.”
Excerpt from Magda Scarlet’s Journal – Confession
Otter Brook, South Carolina—1988
I feel sick. I’m devastated. Maybe if I write some of this out, it won’t be so bad.
This evening I sat on the couch beside my husband while I studied some of Nikola Tesla’s patents. Craig wasn’t acting normal. I put the Tesla book down and stared at my husband. Earlier, I tried to start a conversation when he came home from work, but he just sat watching TV. I thought he was unusually quiet. His excuse was that he’d had a long day.
I knew something was bothering him. There was something wrong.
Were we going off track again?
This wasn’t the first time I felt his distance recently. Of course, being pregnant didn’t make me the most alluring woman. And keeping up with all the new research in my career stole time away from him. We’d been through some rough spots, but that was behind us now, I thought. This baby was the symbol of our new beginning.
When I asked him what was on his mind, he didn’t answer.
Then Craig clicked the remote control, and the television went dark.
I reached for the lamp on the end table, but he told me to leave it off. My first fear was that Craig had been diagnosed with some horrible disease.
He stared at the ceiling and said he didn’t know where to start.
That’s when I figured out that he was going to tell me something I didn’t want to hear.
Craig said he wished he was sick. Wished he was dying because of what he had to tell me. Then he stood and paced, his hands laced over the crown of his head. He did something bad, he said. It sounded as if the words came out on their own, like he didn’t want to say them.
He sat beside me again and held both my hands and started talking about the difficult time we’d had a few years back when I was studying so hard for my Ph.D. He rehashed it all—how I’d stay late with my study group, and he’d stay home drinking, mindlessly watching television.
I stopped him because that wasn’t what he’d said back then. He’d told me he often met up with friends and have dinner once in a while. Or met for drinks.
He said he’d lied to me. He hadn’t had friends. He’d had one friend. It was a woman.
I slapped him and then slapped him again. I started crying, and he did, too.
He said me he felt so guilty. It had been over for a long time, and he’d never told me about it because he didn’t want to hurt me. But now he had no choice.
Chapter 3 – Interview
Soledad Conseco smiled at me with deep brown eyes and red lips. “So, Agent Decker, you took down the infamous Pablo Garcia on your own—by yourself—on a rooftop. I’m impressed.”
It sounded like she wanted to chalk up Garcia’s death to me. “No, I apprehended him and held him until Colonel Marquez arrived, which was only a matter of minutes.”
I had agreed to the interview on TV Acapulco’s En Las Noticias News talk show, but now in the middle of it, I wondered if I should have declined. I was certain that the cartel intended to come after me. I hadn’t fired the shot that killed Garcia, but I was complicit. Less visibility meant fewer guns aimed at me. Secondly, I thought Conseco would ask more questions about the stolen works of art and artifacts recovered from Garcia’s mansion. I kept attempting to steer the conversation in that direction and away from my involvement with the apprehension—busting drug lords was not my expertise, and I didn’t want that kind of notoriety.
“Aside from removing the kingpin of the Selinas Cartel off the streets, I believe there’s another remarkable outcome of this event,” I said. “Are you familiar with Tucker’s Cross?”
Conseco’s expression clearly told me she was taken off guard, and not particularly pleased about it. “No, I must admit, I am not.”
“It’s one of the artifacts recovered from Garcia’s estate. It has an interesting history.”
I hoped I had turned the interview. “In 1955, Teddy Tucker returned to a shipwreck he had found five years earlier. This time, instead of just wreckage and canons, he found treasure. One of the objects he salvaged was a heavy gold cross, studded with seven huge emeralds the size of musket balls. He tried to keep his find a secret, but Bermuda is small, and rumors began to fly. The Smithsonian appraised the treasure and artifacts at $250,000.”
“That was a long time ago,” Conseco said. “I can’t imagine the value now.”
“Way up in the millions. Still, $250,000 was a lot of money in the 1950s.”
Across from where I sat, I could see the weather set and a technician prepping it for the next report. Maybe my interview was coming to an end. I hoped Conseco would ask a few more questions about the reclamation of treasures. I gave it one more shot. “Every time poor old Tucker went out in his boat, he was followed. And when the government threatened to confiscate the goods, he stuffed the cross in a potato sack and hid it in an underwater cave. Eventually, he displayed the cross and other treasures in a museum he and his wife ran. Then they sold the museum to the government. Just before Queen Elizabeth II was to visit the museum—I think it was in 1974—they discovered that the cross had been stolen, and a replica left in its place. It’s been missing ever since. But not any longer. Those are the types of mysteries I love to solve.”
“You must take great pride in finding so many stolen riches.”
“I do. I’ve spent the last three days identifying and inventorying Garcia’s stolen and black market collection, and making arrangements for returning them to the rightful owners or other appropriate destinations. That’s my job, and I love it.”
“So where did you get the nerve to take on an international criminal?”
I had to commend the TV show host for her persistence.
“I didn’t have a choice. I was in the right place at the wrong time.” I could see she was annoyed. Like most other news shows, to get good ratings, they thrived on grisly details. And she wasn’t getting that from me.
Finally Conseco thanked me and then turned to face the camera and described what would be coming up next. A huge relief swept through me. The interview was over.
I thanked her for having me on her show and headed to the lobby feeling the tightness in my chest release so I could breathe normally again.
My ex-husband, OSI Special Agent Kenny Gates, sat on the couch beside my Mexican police protection escort. “How’d it go?”
The Mexican didn’t say anything. He never did. I wondered if he even spoke English.
“Crappy. I’m not fond of recounting that I witnessed the killing of someone, good or bad.” I moved close to him as he stood. “Damn, I’m glad you’re here.” I pecked him on the cheek. He’d flown in the previous day, and this morning he came along with me to the interview. We hadn’t had much time to talk, other than his congratulating me and asking if I was okay.
Kenny and I had a complicated relationship that most people had difficulty understanding. We were divorced on paper, but not from one another. He was always there for me, and me for him. He was still my best friend, and I trusted him more than any other human on Earth. Now and again, we both needed each other for company—to share what was going on in our lives. And even though I often rebuffed his advances, sometimes I gave in, and once in a while lapsed into what we do best—sex.
“I’m not good at the press circus,” I said. “And I feel like I have a big X on my back. I keep looking over my shoulder. I don’t want to be stupid and ignore the dangers of staying in cartel country. I can’t wait to get back to the U.S.”
Kenny took my hand and walked me out the glass doors, the policeman in tow. “Never stupid, Max—well, except for when you left me.”
I jabbed my elbow in his side. I thought the poke would make it seem as if I thought his remark was funny in some way. But in actuality, his statement hurt. “Don’t you remember? It was a mutual decision.”
“I let you think so.”
We walked to my rental car in silence.
My Mexican shadow got in a car parked behind us. I assumed he would hang with me until I boarded the plane.
“You sit back and relax,” Kenny said. “I’ll drive us to the airport.”
And I let him.
When we landed in San Diego, I was cranky. My least favorite parts of flying were landing and taking off. Our long flight made two stops, ramping up my anxiety enough to rip me out of my Johnny Walker-aided naps. It didn’t seem to bother Kenny at all. Every time I had glanced at him, his head appeared comfortably resting against the back of the seat, and his eyes were closed. His mouth didn’t even gape, nor did his chin fall to his chest. How could anybody relax and drift off like that?
We’d no sooner gotten through customs and made our way off the concourse when a cluster of lights flashed. Reporters. Damn.
They started hurling questions about how I captured Pablo Garcia. Was I afraid? Exactly how did I subdue him? What about the man I shot? Did I know I had mortally wounded him? Why didn’t I shoot Garcia? Did I think of myself as a hero?
We walked faster.
Kenny suddenly stopped and turned around. “Back off. Leave her alone.”
One reporter got up in Kenny’s face, and I tensed. I knew my ex, and crowding his space was one thing he didn’t tolerate with much patience.
“I’m telling you as nice as I can, pal,” Kenny said. “I’ll be happy to bust that camera and even buy you a new one once you’re out of the ER. Got it?”
Kenny took my arm, and we continued. He read the stress on my face. “I’m keeping my cool, Max. You hang in there. We’ll be out of here in a minute. We’re not taking the shuttle.”
Kenny led me to a car rental kiosk. It didn’t take long for the paperwork, and in a short time we picked up the car and headed to the Hilton on Harbor Island. We only had a day layover before our return flights—mine to my mountain cabin in Colorado and his back to OSI headquarters in Maryland.
“Thanks for making all the arrangements,” I said.
Kenny let me unwind, tuning the radio to some soft jazz. He didn’t talk to me or ask questions. The mood was blissful.
After a little while, he reached for my thigh. “What do you say we get away from it all? I can take a few more days, and hell, you set your schedule, so that’s not a problem. We can get a decent night’s sleep and leave in the morning.”
I leaned my head back on the seat and left his hand on my leg. His touch was comforting, and in some way made me feel safe.
“That would be wonderful. I’d love it.”
“Ready for a short road trip? I’ve got just the place. No one will know where you are. Not the press and not the cartel.”
I rolled my head to the side to look out the window. My eyes caught a reflection in the side mirror, one I’d already noticed before. I sat up.
“You see it, too?” Kenny said.
“Yeah. That car’s been with us since we left the airport.”
Chapter 4 – Ricardo
The Hilton, Harbor Island, San Diego, California
When the phone rang next to my bed, I jumped. I’d been dead asleep. I had no trouble remembering that the dream I was awakened from was bizarre, but couldn’t recall the details.
I fumbled for the receiver in the dark. “Hello.”
Kenny’s voice came through, sounding much too cheerful for whatever time it was. “You gonna sleep all day or what?”
I slid off the bed, padded to the window and drew open the blackout curtains. A brilliant shard of sunlight nearly blinded me.
“What time is it?”
“Time to get up and at ‘em. Ten AM.”
“Holy crap.” I swept my hair away from my face and rubbed my eyes that felt gritty. “I must have been tired. I crashed.”
“Let’s get this bus on the road.”
“Where are you?”
“Down in the lobby. I’ve already read the paper, watched the news, and checked my e-mail.”
“You’re not going to tell me where you’re taking me, are you?”
“Nope. Not yet. Working on a couple of last minute details to make sure everything is going to be perfect. By the way, to put your mind at rest, I went out early to Starbucks for a coffee, and nobody followed me. If it was the paparazzi or some splinter of the cartel behind us yesterday, they changed their mind.”
I sighed. “Glad to hear that. I’ll meet you downstairs in a few minutes.”
After a quick shower, dressing, and applying a swish of lip gloss, I headed down to the lobby, wet hair and all.
“Hello, beautiful,” Kenny said as I emerged from the elevator. “Hungry?”
“I’m starved. I think I could chow down on the south end of a northbound anything.”
He led me to the restaurant where I ordered a Belgian waffle and bacon, and he had steel-cut oatmeal.
“What’s the mystery destination?” I asked, after my first sip of coffee.
“And spoil the surprise?”
“Never could keep a secret from you for long. San Felipe. It’s a little village in the Mexican Baha on the Gulf of California. Plenty of sun and beach, and a selection of cold drinks with little umbrellas.”
“Sounds like Paradise.”
San Felipe was paradise! Kenny had rented a villa on a gorgeous stretch of sparkling white sand beach that eventually vanished beneath the turquoise water. Above, the blue sky was cloudless. Palms moved with the breeze like performing a tropical dance. Postcard perfect. I stood at the window staring out at the breathtaking view, trying to ignore the fact that I was back in Mexico. “I can’t believe this,” I called to Kenny who was putting our luggage in the bedroom.
He came up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist. “Think you can relax here?”
“Silly question. How can I not?”
“Wi-Fi and satellite if you want to connect with the outside world. And a kitchen for midnight snacks. Look out there, see the little tiki huts, the palapas, on the beach? We can dig our toes in the sand, take a swim, and then chill in a hammock in the shade of a hut.”
“You amaze me. You always know just what I need.”
“Oh, and I had them stock the fridge with my grocery list. Cost a little extra, but what the heck. And the minibar of course. How about I fix you one of my famous piña coladas.”
“I’d love one.”
While he went into the kitchen, I removed my ankle-holstered Walther PPK and placed it in the nightstand drawer next to Kenny’s Glock G41. As an active OSI special agent, he was always armed, and for my protection, so was I. I heard whirring and then ice grinding. A moment later, he handed me the fresh piña colada. In his other hand was a bottle of Tecate. “Cheers.”
I raised my glass to his bottle, but just before they clinked, there was a knock at the door.
Kenny went to the front window and peeked between the blinds. “Some guy. Probably wants to wash the car or something for an easy American dollar. Not the cartel type.”
“How can you be sure?” I retrieved a kitchen towel then my Walther and Kenny’s G41.
“Trust me, Max. But just in case.” He took his .45 auto from me and draped the towel over it.
“Wait.” I positioned myself flush against the wall where I wouldn’t be seen through the doorway.
Kenny opened the door. “Can I help you?”
“I need to see Señora Decker.”
I raised the Walther.
“Who are you?” Kenny moved forward to make the kid step back. My ex closed the door behind him, but I could still hear bits of conversation.
A moment later, Kenny opened the door again. “Max, he wants to talk to you about something his brother found.”
I nodded and stuffed the Walther in the back of my waistband.
Kenny openly carried his weapon back to the counter and offered the young man a drink of water, but he refused. And he didn’t sit until he was invited.
“My name is Ricardo Delgado. I am from San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico. I see you on the television. I pray for to see you in person. I ask God for help. My brother, he find something.”
His accent was thick, but I didn’t have much trouble understanding him.
“Vincente, my brother, was in the water.” Ricardo stopped as if searching for the right words. “A month ago, he wade in the river. New water put in the Colorado from the dam. That is where my brother go in the water.”
Kenny stopped him. “I think he means the pulse water recently released from the Morelos Dam upstream in the Colorado River.”
Ricardo looked excited. “Si!”
Kenny turned to me. “That’s part of a program to restore the Colorado River delta.”
“Si,” Ricardo said. “Yes. Restore. We live not too far away. Vincente wade in the water.” Ricardo pulled a bandana from his pocket and unfolded it. Mira. Look. My brother, he find this. He take picture.” He handed me a photograph.
I stared at the image, and so did Kenny.
My eyes shifted to my ex’s. “What in the hell is it?”
Chapter 5 – The Photo
Holding Ricardo’s photo to catch the light, I examined it. He told us his brother had taken the picture with his cell phone. “Excuse me a minute.” I went to retrieve my suitcase. I took out a small leather pouch, and then dumped the contents on the bed. Among the articles was a plastic case containing my illuminated jeweler’s loupe, a necessity in my line of work.
I went back to Kenny and the young man. Peering through the magnifying lens I made out more of the photograph’s detail. What I saw was an object that had a slight resemblance to a large toolbox—about one meter long with a handle on top. I got an idea of the scale because someone stood behind the object with one hand touching it. But this was no toolbox. Unlike a toolbox, there were no latches to secure a lid. And out of one end extended a metal tube, about the diameter of a paper towel cardboard roller. I estimated its length to be 30 centimeters. The photo had been taken at an angle, so I was able to observe two multi-prong connectors, much like modern power plugs, on the other end-panel that faced the camera. There appeared to be an abundance of oxidation and corrosion all over the object. “Certainly looks metallic, maybe copper or brass. I’d have to see it to be sure.”Holding Ricardo’s photo to catch the light, I examined it. He told us his brother had taken the picture with his cell phone. “Excuse me a minute.” I went to retrieve my suitcase. I took out a small leather pouch, and then dumped the contents on the bed. Among the articles was a plastic case containing my illuminated jeweler’s loupe, a necessity in my line of work.
My eye stopped on what appeared to be an engraving or stamping. Maybe even a metal tag. “Kenny, look at this.” I handed him the picture and the loupe. “Bottom right corner of whatever this is.”
Kenny stared through the lens. “Yeah, I see it. The name Friedrich Krupp AG.”
“Right,” I said. “A German company.”
Kenny glanced up. “And there’s a damn swastika on it. That dates it from World War II.”
I turned to Kenny. “Not in such bad shape if it was from that era. What do you think it could be?”
“Could have been a vet’s war souvenir, and he lost it. But I have no idea what it is.”
“Kind of big for a souvenir,” I said.
“No,” Ricardo said loudly, taking me by surprise.
Kenny returned the photo. “What do you mean?”
“No, souvenir. No memento. My brother die because of this. Vincente murdered.”
I felt my eyes widen at his statement. “You told us your brother was wading in the water when he found it. Why do you say he was murdered?”
Ricardo rewrapped the photograph in his bandana. “New water rush down from Morelos Dam. Everyone in San Luis Rio very excited. Everyone play in the water. Little niños and adultos. Vincente—my older brother—he find this washed down with water. So he think it interesting and start looking up information on computer. He tell me it is important find. Some secret from war.”
“I can’t imagine what that could be,” I said. “Looks like nothing more than an equipment part or perhaps a power converter. Not worth enough money for someone to kill him for it.”
“Vincente think it was big deal. Very important. I tell him, ‘You crazy, man.’ That was all he do all day, search for stuff on computer about this.” Ricardo held up the wrapped bandana. “He take this picture and put it on the Internet. It made no sense to me. Loco, I say.” He tapped his finger to his temple.
Kenny scratched his head. “What did your brother tell you about what he found in his research? Did he say why he thought it was so important?”
“Vincente find someone on the Internet. He didn’t tell me who, only that this man knew something. My brother, he very excited. He convinced he find something special. He hide it in the shed behind our mother’s house. Every night he go there and look at it. Sometimes I would go with him. I keep telling him, Vincente, you are crazy. One night he get a phone call. My brother’s face full of fear.”
I glanced at Kenny and then at Ricardo. “Who called him?”
Ricardo shook his head. “I wish I know. Vincente did not know who it was, either. But my brother say the woman on the phone threaten him. My brother was afraid. He say I should not tell anyone about what he found or about the phone call. Then he tell me the woman on the phone say she would kill my brother if he keep looking for answers about the object. I say what are you afraid of? It’s just a woman.”
He teared up, and Kenny offered him water again. This time he accepted.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Si, si. I apologize. My brother was like a father to me.” Ricardo raised his eyes to the ceiling as if peering through the roof. “Our father, he is with God.” Then his gaze met mine.
I let Ricardo take a moment to sip the water and recollect himself. His story was getting to me, too. I swallowed back my memories at the tragic death of my twin sister, Francine—at my own hands. I believed I knew how he was feeling. Calling his brother crazy was probably tearing him up. I understood what guilt boiling inside felt like. Even now, the nausea of blame rolled inside my belly. I gave us time for the daggers in our guts to retreat. Though I didn’t want to, I finally asked him a question I knew would agitate his emotions again. “How did your brother die?”
Ricardo cleared his throat. “I give him a party for his birthday. Vincente was twenty-five. We all stay up late celebrating. Everyone leave about two in the morning. My brother and I have one more drink. ‘Salud¡’ Then go to bed. Policía come to our house early in the morning. Seven o’clock, maybe. They tell me Vincente is dead. They tell me he fall from bridge, and they find his body in the water. Too much to drink, they say. I can’t believe it. So, I go check, and his bed is empty. I say it can’t be. Vincente went to bed when I did. He would not go out and walk to the bridge. But the policía say they have no reason to inv … invegis … what is the word?”
“Investigate?” I said.
“Si. They say it was accident.” Ricardo’s chin quivered. “If only I had believed him. I call him crazy. Tell him he is loco. Maybe this would not have happened if I listen to him. If I take him serious. I should have believed.” Ricardo wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
My heart went out to him. My throat tightened as I remembered the death of my sister—like he was remembering Vincente. I shoved my feelings into a dark room in my mind and slammed the door.
I could think of nothing to say to Ricardo that would diminish his anguish. No one had ever been able to speak any words to me that relieved my guilt about Fran. What was so sad was that the Mexican police were probably right—a night of partying, and one thing led to another. Ricardo went to sleep, but his brother wasn’t done celebrating. The truth wouldn’t matter. Ricardo still had a long difficult road to travel to forgive himself for calling his brother crazy.
He stared hard at me. “I see in your eyes, you do not believe me. You believe the Federales. I did, too. At first. But then everything changed.”
Chapter 6 – Por Favor
Ricardo’s voice quavered, and again I connected with his pain.
“How did everything change?” I asked. “What do you mean?”icardo’s voice quavered, and again I connected with his pain.
“I grieve for my brother and hate myself because I was angry at him. Why my brother go out on the bridge drunk? I feel guilty for being mad, and I pray to God for help.” Ricardo put his hand on his heart. “I hurt so bad. The heart aches. I realize others want the object, too. Maybe his killer want it because after Vincente die, I discover our house broken into. Back window is smashed. It is old bedroom used for storage. I never go in there. Thief come in window while I am at church for Vincente’s funeral. Vincente was warned. He had threat call from woman.”
“Is the object still hidden in your mother’s shed?” Kenny said.
He took a long time before he answered—staring at our faces as if considering our trustworthiness. “No. The secret to object’s hiding place went to the grave with Vincente. He was killed for what he find that day in the water. This is why I come to you.”
I hated to tell Ricardo, but I didn’t work murder cases. He must have been reading my mind because he started explaining why he had sought me out.
“I see you all over TV news, and I think to myself, you are the one I must talk to.”
“But how did you know I was here? How did you find me?”
Ricardo smiled for the first time since he had arrived. “Small report in my town periódico— periódico, how you say?”
“Newspaper,” Kenny said.
“Si si. Reporter follow you from airport. He write you were in San Diego hotel restaurant and talk about go to San Felipe. I check around.” Ricardo shot his eyes to Kenny. “Aha, I find you by Kenneth Gates name, right here at these villas. I drive down in my truck. Long trip for you. Short trip for me.”
Terrific. If he can find us, anyone can. I glanced at Kenny. “Well, so much for being under the radar.”
“Sorry, Max. I did that test ride to Starbucks and nobody followed. I guess that’s why I’m not a field agent.”
“Maybe because I wasn’t in the car,” I said.
“Probably. And I didn’t think anything more about it because nobody followed us here. I kept checking in the rearview.”
The drug cartel swept into my head like a roaring wind. Did they know I was here, too?
I returned my attention to the young man. “Ricardo, I’m sorry. I don’t think you’ve come to the right person.”
Ricardo bolted up out of his seat. “Si, I have. I have. You find Tucker’s Cross and take care of cartel drug lord. You can help me find who kill my brother and why.” He sank into the chair again. With an apologetic expression, he said, “Please, Señora Decker. I no rest until I find who did this. Every day I do not know, a piece of me dies.”
I heard a little crack in his voice again and was afraid if I responded, he and Kenny would hear the crack in mine. Waves of heartbreak washed through me. Francine. I’d been tricked into shooting and killing my sister. My twin. Why hadn’t I been smarter? I understood how Ricardo’s insides felt, ripping apart with guilt. As much as I wanted to help, I knew that taking this on would tear me to pieces. Besides, I had my commitment with the FBI task force. They gave me a great deal of flexibility but had exclusive use of my time. I had to tell him no. And I was going to witness his expression and feel sick in the pit of my belly.
“I do not have much to pay you,” he said. “But I will give you all I have. Everything. My money. My truck.”
I put my elbows on my knees and rested my face in my hands.
“You find lost and stolen things,” Ricardo said. “And you take care of bad people. Por favor. I beg.”
Kenny spoke up. “Ricardo, we’re sorry to hear about what happened to your brother. This must be a difficult time for you. I’m sure Ms. Decker would love to help you. But she has another job. And right now, she needs to have some personal time. You can see this is distressing to her.”
I looked up and watched Kenny go to the door and open it followed by Ricardo, the young man’s steps slow and heavy.
“Hang on,” I said. “Let me see the picture again.”