Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
Like many businessmen, Enrico León had a home office. Unlike many businessmen, it was swept on a daily basis for bugs: electronic listening devices planted by whom? By a disgruntled employee, looking to blackmail him?
By a competitor, say, a Felix Javier Benitez, head of the Juárez cartel, trying to edge him out?
Or perhaps by someone else. The Federales, maybe. Or the gringos from El Norte, in a feeble attempt to snare him.
The sweeps had never turned up anything, but it didnt hurt to be overly cautious, not in this business, and so the sweeps continued. The office was on the second floor of Casa Mariposa, the better to secure it from intruders. It was one of the only rooms on that level that did not have its own terrace; again, for security purposes.
Expensive contemporary art hung on the walls, and two computers sat on a far credenza, at odds with the antique, heavy, massively proportioned black walnut furnishings of the room, dating back to the Spanish colonial era.
Very little data resided on the computers hard drives; Teresa knew that. Any information of a seriously incriminating nature was stored on encrypted discs whose hidden locations were always changing; only she, Enrico, and Ernesto Garciá, Enricos attorney, knew their whereabouts at any given time. There were no files, no folders, but there were the incoming and outgoing fax machines, whose numbers were changed every 72 hours; the cell phones Enrico and his inner circle used were changed every 24 hours.
It was all about avoiding detection, about staying one step ahead of the competition, and five steps ahead of the law. Like a business, there were accountants elsewhere who did the Mazatlán cartels financial bidding, and the staffers who managed their accounts receivables, oversaw inventory, hiring, and any legitimate business development that could potentially be used for money laundering. But even these people were insulated layers away from Teresa and Enrico, taking their orders from intermediaries, many never knowing that they were ultimately in the employ of el Halcón.
Maybe it was better that way, Teresa sighed, her eyes tracking to where Enrico was engaged in spirited conversation with Manuel Diaz, Carlos, and Ernesto. Better not just from a security perspective, for it certainly was that, but also from a sanity standpoint. It was easier, somehow, to give orders to faceless names, to tiny chess pieces on an immense, ever-changing playing board. Because if the rules of the game were broken, there was a price to be paid. And the knowing of that was something she found very difficult to come to terms with, particularly when she was so overwhelmed in the paying of her own, very personal price.
But then, she too, had broken the rules, hadnt she?
Every few days, Enrico had these meetings. Staff meetings, of a sort, that shed encouraged him to have, the better to keep a handle on his business.
To plan. To anticipate. To remedy.
At first, hed been reluctant to allow her to attend. After all, what would that say about his machismo, if he allowed his woman to intrude where she was not wanted? Unheard of. But as shed become more involved in the business, shed insisted. At last she had prevailed, and had been able to quietly, diplomatically show her value. And that was what it always came down to in the end, with Rico. What was she worth to him?
So shed started showing up at the meetings, not caring what explanation Rico had given to the others. That was his problem. She would sit there, listening, mostly, needing to know it all, every last bit of it. Owing that to herself, as a sentence in a way, for the life shed chosen. She even contributed from time to time, when Ricos anger got him too tongue twisted to carry on, taking care that it appeared as though the ideas came from him.
Always, from him.
They were all gathered around a small conference table adjacent to Enricos conquistador-sized desk. A cloud of smoke hovered above the table, and she blinked her eyes against it from her seat a little behind Rico, and to the side. So docile. So subservient.
She did not smoke; the one vice she did not allow herself.
"I do not understand, Rico." Carlos said, frowning. He was ten years older than his brother, giving Teresa a preview of what her husband would look like in the future: his dark hair balding and flecked with gray, a thickening middle, rounded shoulders. "We are having no problem with our routes now. Over 90% of our product makes it across the border. Why change things?"
"What if that number were increased to 95%? Or even 98%?" Enrico clicked the pen in his hand on and off in rapid-fire fashion, the way he always did when he was angry or frustrated. "That would mean hundreds of millions more in yanqui dollars per year."
"So?" Carlos countered, his face florid, perspiring. "I thought we were doing fine, just as we are!"
God, no wonder Rico kept Carlos out of the day-to-day affairs of the business, Teresa thought. The man had no guts, no vision. An ostrich with its head in the sand, oblivious to the tank rolling its way.
"Carlos has a point, Rico," Ernesto said, steepling his fingers. "Our competition with Benitez and the Juárez cartel is a known factor. What youre proposing is venturing into the unknown." He pursed his lips. "Moving our product into the United States from Canada, instead of Mexico?"
"Not instead of," Rico growled, his tan skin growing darker. "In addition to!"
"We are having more success with our aircraft operation now than we ever have," Ernesto continued. "And weve had no more problems than usual driving through the border checkpoints."
"Drive-throughs bah!" Enrico León released twin trails of smoke through his nose. "Mules, carrying one suitcase at a time! And our barefoot pilots in tin-can Cessnas flying low to the ground with their radar detection devices, hoping to catch all the gaps in the radar net. All it would take is for the gringos to increase their coverage, and we are screwed!"
"I dont like it, Enrico." The sunlight glinted off Ernestos designer glasses. "And your partners wont like it, either."
"Think carefully about what you say, Ernesto," Rico warned him. Teresa could see the muscles in her husbands jaw clenching, could hear the threatening tone in his voice; a tone she knew so well.
"Im your abogado, Rico," the attorney replied, unblinking. "Its my job to give you counsel. Its what you pay me for."
Carlos eased his considerable girth back into his chair; the leather upholstery squeaked in protest. "There you have it," he said smugly, satisfied. "Enough of this nonsense."
"As I understand it," a soft voice spoke, "its about alternative channels of distribution."
The arguing ground to a stop.
All eyes were upon her now, and she could especially feel the heat of Enricos glare, though she chose to ignore him. She was well practiced in that.
"Weve already got the contacts in place, or else we can have them up and running quickly," she said, knowing that to be true. Hell, Rico could make a phone call right now, and have a man dead in Minneapolis within the hour. Traditional organized crime groups in the states, be they the Mafia or other illegal organizations, were toddling babies compared to the behemoths of power and influence that were the cartels.
"We continue with the flights. And with the border operations. We simply expand on that. Increasing the amount of product we move. Increasing our market share. Reducing risk."
"And getting more profit in the bargain," Manuel noted, eyeing her curiously. Manuel Diaz was a strange one. As her husbands right-hand man, he was intensely loyal, dedicated. She knew he had a wife. A family. Shed seen him feeding a stray cat once, one that had wandered its way onto the rear courtyard, defying the guards.
And yet she knew that Manuel could kill a man without a second thought, making a woman a widow, a child an orphan. Then turn around and go home to kiss his own children goodnight.
She was afraid of him, a little.
"Exactly!" Enrico seized upon her words, his ego restored.
Carlos was outraged. "This is foolishness!" he sputtered. "It will never work!"
"As Rico explained it to me," Teresa continued, lowering her eyes deferentially, "weve already got most of the resources in place with our existing fishing fleet. We simply keep to international waters, then slip into British Columbia. From there, it will be childs play to get our product down to Washington, Idaho, or Montana. The borders are wide open. The Canadians are already smuggling in tons of home-grown marijuana a year, virtually uncontested."
"Because their skin is not as dark!" Manuel spat out.
"Maybe," she told him honestly. "But theres an opportunity there. One we can take advantage of."
"Ahead of everyone else," Ernesto said, a far-off look in his eyes. "Ahead of Benitez." He was beginning to see the light.
"Yes," Enrico grinned, taking a last puff from his cigarette butt. "The gringos will be looking for us from the south, while we steal in their back door, and fuck their sisters!" He laughed harshly, a laugh that made Teresas stomach do a bit of a flip.
Carlos, however, was not convinced. Not that he needed to be. "But Rico"
"Enough!" Enrico slammed the meat of his hand upon the table. Teresa flinched. "I want you to get started on this. Now!"
"Very well," Ernesto said nervously, sparing a glance to see Carlos gulping furiously as he visibly cowered from his brother. Best not to upset el Halcón. That could be a most dangerous thing.
The matter was closed.
A few more minor issues, things Manuel would take care of, and then the meeting was over.
The men left, all save for her husband. He stood and moved next to her, brushing her cheek with the back of his hand.
"You did well, chica," he said, his voice low, a tiger, purring. "I think you have a taste for this, eh?"
She considered his words. Wondering whether what he said was true. Fearing that it was.
"I dont know," she whispered, and that was the truth.
She turned her head away, feeling suddenly ashamed.
Special Agent Lane M. Sinclair knew that sometimes it was best not to know certain things; the better to keep what shred of plausible deniability she had, intact.
There were the agents who snorted the coke or shot the heroin, just to get the deal done.
And the law enforcement officials on both sides of the border, who accepted or gave an on-the-spot mordida, just to make something happen or, worse, to make something else go away.
Or the agents who would say whatever, do whatever, or sleep with whomever, hoping, praying that those acts would ultimately lead to the break theyd been waiting for.
Lane was not without such guilt herself, hell, she was quite familiar with the line of integrity that was drawn so starkly in the desert sand, and shed had occasion to stick her big toe over it more than once. But shed always drawn it back; had scratched and clawed her way back to herself, knowing that if she ever truly gave into it, crossed that line and stayed there, only then would she be truly lost.
So, it was best not to know. Not to ask certain questions, of herself, or others.
But this this Operation El Halcón that Starks had cooked up it was fucked already, she could see that. The special agent-in-charge had to be bucking for a promotion, or trying to impress the higher-ups close to President Arnold, or some such shit, because she really couldnt see that hed thought this thing through. She had more questions than answers, and she never liked working an operation that way. It went against every instinct that was screaming aloud right now in her gut, clamoring to be heard.
Shed barely had a chance to say adios to a clearly mystified Clarence Hayes. And that had bothered her, leaving him behind. He was her partner, for Christs sake! You never split from your partner, never.
On the short evening flight from El Paso to Culiacán, Starks had told her shed be teaming with a couple of men whod been working in partnership with the DEA in Mexico; men from the Federal Judicial Police.
The Federales were the major civilian law enforcement body in Mexico. And the most dysfunctional, due to corruption. These guys were most likely a couple of goons shed do better without. But they were nothing compared to the informant shed been partnered with: Gaitán Gates Romero.
"Gates Romero is the informant?" Shed fairly screeched at Starks when hed told her that little fact in an over-heated, run-down hotel about 150 miles north of Mazatlán. They had spent the night there before choppering out this morning to meet the rest of the team. "Youve got to be fucking kidding me!"
"Hes the informant, Lane, yes," Starks had said, looking unflappable in his white polo shirt and pressed chinos. "I heard you two worked well together, back on the Miami operation."
"We worked together, yeah," shed told him grimly. "And well is not exactly what I would call it."
It had been hell, more like it, back then. Gaitán Romero, the son of émigrés from Castros Cuba, a wild card whod barely eked out an honorable discharge from the Special Forces, had been her partner for a blessedly brief, chaotic time.
Gates was an asshole, for starters. If only things had stayed that harmless. He was good-looking, if tall, dark, and dick-head happened to be to your tastes; charming or so he thought, and with just enough smarts to keep getting himself into a helluva lot of trouble.
He had needed more cash than his DEA agents salary would allow, to support his expensive tastes and demanding women, and so hed gone on the take from a local drug lord. Shed found out about it soon enough, and turned him, after accidentally breaking a couple of fingers on his shooting hand. Gates had ended up playing both sides against the middle to get out of the jam hed found himself in.
After the shit had all gone down, hed gotten the hell out of Miami, leaving a bunch of pissed-off Columbians in his wake. Shed heard later that hed hied off to greener pastures in Mexico, acting as an executive consultant to some of the cartel bosses.
Consultant - it was all the latest rage.
Money was no object among the Mexican drug kingpins, and more and more they were turning to mercenaries from the U.S., offering them as much as half a million dollars a year for their expertise. Former special ops soldiers were highly prized, capable of intercepting burst transmissions, placing and detecting bugs, and training others in encryption methodology. A mercenary who also knew about the inner workings of the DEA well, Lane had cringed at the thought of how much damage Gates had potentially wrought.
For a fee, of course. The fuck.
For the last 24 hours, Starks had kept emphasizing the need for secrecy. Well, no shit! All it would take would be a breath of a wind for this house of cards to come crashing down, especially if Gates Romero were involved. Things were so hush-hush, in fact, that the Mexican government officially didnt even know about this joint operation. And that, Lane also found hard to believe. But then in a way, it was just as well, she considered. Because if the news hit the wrong channels, she and Starks would never get out of Mexico with Enrico León in tow.
Theyd arrived this morning at a small casa in the hills above Mazatlán, and, as theyd flown in low to the ground, her practiced eyes had spotted just five minutes from the downtown area several small poppy fields near the river. Their flowering buds waved a welcome to her in the early morning breeze; Mexicos new number one cash crop.
An SUV had taken them from the landing zone to the casa, about five minutes away along a winding dirt road. Armed men who seemed to know Starks and were expecting him had granted them entrance, and inside shed met the two sullen-faced federales who would be on her team. She couldnt get a read on them at all, and that troubled her, on this quick in-and-out job where she was the new woman in town. In fact, shed practically had to insist to Starks that she be allowed get a first-hand look at the layout before they went in.
Shit, it was all about trust! Sighing heavily, she supposed shed have to rely on Starks, for that. Until they got the hell out of here.
So here they were, all staring at one another, smoking, while she tried to ignore the moderately enticing scent of the huevos and frijoles wafting in from somewhere else in the tiny casa. Just when had she last eaten, anyway?
And where the hell was Gates? Late, as usual.
Just as she was about to go in search of some breakfast, she heard the growl of an engine outside; the slam of a car door. Footsteps, and a greeting in Spanish.
And then the doorway was filled with the bulk of a man wearing charro boots, jeans, an oversized brass belt-buckle, a striped shirt, and a blue New York Mets warm-up jacket. His eyes were obscured by a pair of highly reflective sunglasses, and his dark hair was slicked back, crowning his classic Latin features.
The lips below his mustache curled up into a grin, revealing a set of even, white teeth.
"Hola, Lane." He smirked, hooking a finger through a belt loop. "You miss me?"
Teresa stepped out onto her bedroom terrace. It was late afternoon, and she needed to get a breath of fresh air, to calm herself. And she wanted to do so without having to deal with anyone right now, not even the gardeners or the household workers she might find downstairs. And then there were Ricos guaruras, his small force of armed bodyguards who seemed to lurk in every dark corner, smoking. Staring at her.
Worse, she might run into Enrico himself, or Manuel, and frankly she wasnt in the mood. She was feeling a little edgy, and she told herself that clearing her head in the fresh air of the out-of-doors might be all the elixir she needed. This time, anyway.
There was a reason why shed chosen this room when shed first moved out of the master suite, and that was because of its view from the balcony. It was her refuge. Situated, as it was, on the side of Casa Mariposa, from its mosaic-tiled terrace she could clearly see the front of the home and the entry courtyard, where she could keep track of the comings and goings. To the rear were the palm-cloaked gardens and pool, all of it surrounded by the high adobe walls Rico had insisted upon. Cultivated vines draping from the edges of a slanted, terra-cotta roof, extending past the terrace to the level below, offered her moderate privacy against intruding eyes.
She sighed, gazing up towards the hills behind her home, hills that eventually swept up into the dry Sierra Madre Occidental, leaving the heat and the humidity of terra caliente the tropical lowlands behind. Some distance in front of her, playing out like a three-dimensional blanket that had been haphazardly unfurled, were the tightly clustered, tile-roofed buildings of old-town Mazatlán. The clay, adobe, and stone homes sparkled in the brilliant sunshine; gemstones flecking the fabric of the blanket.
Farther still, her eyes traveled to the royal blue ocean in the distance; the seas looked calm this day, a good thing for the fishing boats pulling into the harbor, bearing both shrimp and cocaine, and for the luxury yachts bobbing in the docks past Playa Olas Atlas.
Beyond the turista hotel strip at south end of town, she could see El Faro, the famous lighthouse standing second only to Gibraltars in terms of height. Even on this sunny afternoon she could spy the flickering of its beacon. Day or night it stood guard, ever-vigilant, cautioning seafarers away from the rocky cliffs of the point.
Away! Stay away! Its shining beam had warned. But she hadnt listened. Instead, the danger had enticed her, drawn her in. And now, here she was, shipwrecked. Marooned. With no sign of rescue in sight.
She felt the gentle breeze stir her hair and she breathed it in, detecting on it a hint of salt from the sea, and the flowering hibiscus from the gardens. Her pounding heart began to calm. She put her hands on the railing and closed her eyes, letting the tension drain away from her body.
But even with her eyes closed, she knew what surrounded her. She had it all memorized in her minds eye; every swaying palm tree, every chipped tile, every small whitecap on the water. The tantalizing vision of what lay just beyond the walls of her prison, a freedom that was hers if only she had the guts to make a break for it.
She could feel the heat of the sun on her skin, warming her. Comforting her. Assuring her with its seductive caress that it was okay to stay right where she was.
For just a little while longer.
"Ah, mamacita!" Gates groaned, grabbing obscenely at his crotch. "What do you think Lane, eh?" He nodded towards the Casa Mariposa.
Towards a terrace on the second level, where a young woman had suddenly appeared.
"She make me burn for her, you know what Im sayin?"
"Who the hell is that?" After a quick glance about, Lane discreetly lifted a pair of binoculars.
Theyd been sitting in Gates Romeros dark blue 1984 Ford Granada for the last hour, baking in the heat of the sun, watching the activity around Enrico Leóns stronghold. The neighborhood was fairly secluded, and so theyd had to park a block or so away. Even at that, Lane hadnt wanted to stay too long. Shed simply wanted to get a first-hand look at the layout of the casa, a better alternative than any rough diagrams Gates could have provided. And, if she were lucky, maybe shed catch a glimpse of the target, prior to the takedown.
All this, while trying to appear as inconspicuous as possible. If they were questioned, Lane had a local map spread out on her lap; they were tourists, trying to locate the nearby dude ranch, Hacienda Las Moras.
That was if they didnt recognize Gates, first. Hed been hired several years back by Enricos attorney, Ernesto Garciá, to help train some of the León family employees in certain defensive techniques, and a few other skills, besides.
"Its the lady of the house," Gates chuckled, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. "I tell you, if I had a pair of chiches like that waiting for me at home, I wouldnt be makin time somewhere else!"
"Sure, you would," Lane said dryly, still looking through the binoculars. Well, this was an interesting development. The woman was, quite simply, a stunner. Thin, of medium height, with golden hair and fair skin that was lightly sun-kissed, she wore a gauzy white blouse and pants set. The woman moved closer towards the edge of the balcony, gazing off towards the waters of the bahia.
"I didnt know he was married," Lane commented, watching the womans eyes slip closed. For instant, before she caught herself, she found herself wondering what such a woman could possibly be thinking of.
"Si. For a while, now. His family dont like it, though. Shes a gringa from Los Angeles."
"Ah, who knows? Shes a good little wife, though. Hardly ever goes out."
"Whats her name?"
"Teresa," he told her, before turning to curiously regard her over the top of his sunglasses. "Oh, now you interested eh?" He snorted. "Thats right. I remember now. You like"
"You dont know dick," she growled, hastily dropping the binoculars as though they were on fire. God, how long had the two of them been sitting in this car? She felt as though she were turning into a puddle. And was it possible that Gates was an even bigger asshole than shed remembered?"
The mercenary laughed aloud now, shaking his head. "No, no thats your problem. You dont know dick. If you like," he sidled closer to her, licking his lips, "I could show you what youve been missing all this time--"
Suddenly, Gates found a cocked and loaded Glock .45 in his face. "How bout I just tell you I know what I been missin," she said tightly, "and that I decided to go for something better." Twin orbs of blue bored into him. "Hmn?"
"Hey easy there, Lane!" Gates nervously threw up his hands in mock surrender. "You get no argument from me. So we both like the same thing, eh? Bueno!"
Lane hesitated, taking care that her point had been made. And then, "Lets get out of here." She lowered her weapon. Shed had enough of this place, and enough of Gates Romero. "I want to check out Leóns casa chica. Hes bound to be less on his guard there," she said, returning her gaze to the balcony. Teresa León had disappeared back into the house. Or maybe shed never really been there at all; had instead been a ghostly vision in broad daylight. "That might be the better place to take him down."
Obediently, Gates turned the ignition key. As the car rattled to life, hot air began to blow full-force from the air conditioning vents. "Ill tell you something," he said, following Lanes gaze to the now-empty balcony. "When Enricos gone," he put the car in gear, "shes gonna be mine. Youll see."
"You are so full of shit. But what else is new?" Her head was beginning to violently throb.
"You gotta think big, Lane. That was always your problem." He shifted the car back down the road towards Mazatlán. "Tonight, after this takedown? Ill be on the way to the disco in my other car, my BMW, with half a dozen beautiful ladies waiting for me, and a wad of Starks cash in my wallet. And you? Youll be on your way back to the states, back to x-raying cartons of lettuce at the border for a living."
"Yeah, but at least Ill be able to sleep at night." She rubbed at her temples.
"Hey!" he pointed a crooked finger at her, one that shed once broken, she thought. "At night? I sleep like a baby. And who are you kiddin? You aint had a good nights sleep in years, Lane. Maybe that kind of lifes good enough for you," he turned his attention back to the dusty road, gripping the wheel tightly. "But its not the life for me. That was never the life for me."
It wasnt much of a plan, but it was as good a plan as she was going to get, Lane Sinclair knew that. It was just after 1AM, and she was crouched in a shadowed alleyway next to a small apartment building at the edge of the market district in Mazatlán. The two federales were behind her, waiting for her signal. On the calle in front of her, Enrico Leóns white Mercedes was parked, but it was not his usual driver at the wheel.
Instead, it was one Gates Romero, who had taken the time to borrow the drivers white dress shirt after they had overpowered him. That little operation had gone easy enough; the driver had been half asleep anyway as hed sat waiting for León, smoking, listening to the radio. Hed been quickly carried away in Gates Ford Granada by another one of the men working with Starks, someone Lane hadnt met before, but that was no surprise. Anonymity seemed to be standard operating procedure for this mission. Shed never seen these guys before, and hopefully never would again.
So now they were on their own, just herself, the federales, and Gates. Her former partner had told her that Enrico was nothing if not predictable, at least where his casa chica was concerned. Three evenings a week he was there, never staying the night, always leaving before 2AM. That kind of routine was dangerous in the world in which el Halcón lived, but Lane guessed that his own ego had perhaps blinded him with over-confidence; thinking that it was his God-given right to have a mistress, and that he was safe visiting her in virtually his own backyard.
Yes, the downfall of Enrico León would be his mistress.
Or his puta, as Gates had derisively referred to her. Well, everybody had to make a living somehow, Lane figured. To many Mexican men, the casa chica was a time-honored tradition. Tens of thousands of single women relied on the well-equipped second households of their lovers for their very livelihoods, saving them from what otherwise might have been poverty-level existences.
Not that such an altruistic concept made the women waiting at home alone for their husbands feel any better.
A woman like Teresa León, for example.
A couple walked down the sidewalk, laughing, arm-in-arm, and Lane shrank back into the shadows until they passed her by.
If everything went according to plan, an unsuspecting León would get into the car. She and the federales would box him in, and then theyd be off, up to the rendezvous spot in the hills where Starks and the helicopter would be waiting. After transferring the drug lord to the chopper, theyd head back to Culiacán, and the private plane that would take them back to El Paso. Spiriting León right out from under the noses of his armed guards, and the Mexican authorities who may or may not have been in the employ of the cartel.
By tomorrow morning, she should be back in the damn gym, groaning at Clarences lousy jokes, and wondering whether this half-baked operation had all been just a bad, whiskey inspired dream.
Lane checked her watch. It was close to 1:15AM now, they could expect Enrico at any moment.
The night air was warm and humid, typical for Mazatlán, and she was grateful that along with her khaki slacks she was wearing a softer version of the popular mens guayabera, a loose-fitting, untucked embroidered shirt popular in the tropics. Her trusty Glock fit comfortably on her belt beneath it.
"Youre undercover. Youve got to blend in if youre approached," Starks had insisted, and so the federales were to act as though they were all in the middle of a business proposition if they were questioned.
Lane hoped it wouldnt come down to that. She feared that her two silent partners might enjoy their role-playing a bit too much.
Another down side to the fast and light aspect of the operation, was that they werent heavily armed. Couldnt be, as exposed as they were. And so that also meant no vests. Even a streamlined Kevlar model might easily be detected by someone giving them the once-over.
Ah, well. Lane tried to not let it all distract her. It wasnt as though Enrico had a dozen of his guaruras waiting for him that they had to blast their way through; he always went solo on these visits to his mistress, save for his driver.
At least, thats what Gates Romero had assured her of.
It was the primary reason why shed decided to spring her trap here, rather than back at the fortress that the drug lord called his home.
This way, nobody had to get hurt, or so Lane told herself. Maybe Enricos driver would have a helluva headache in the morning, once he woke up at wherever Starks man was taking him, but that should be about it. By then, his employer and any hope of rescuing him - would be decidedly out of reach.
And as for Leóns blonde wife, well, she would be on her own, free to do whatever. Mexico could be a tough place for a woman alone, particularly a woman who was not well liked by her husbands family. Maybe she would decide to play the loyal wife, pining for Enricos return, or else maybe shed simply run back home to Los Angeles.
Not that any of that really mattered to Lane.
She was ready to get out of the alley soon; it was cramped, confining, and stank of spoiled milk, sweat, and gasoline.
The hairs on the nape of her neck stood on end.
She heard the clanking of a heavy latch, and then the wrought iron gate to the apartment buildings entryway creaked open.
Feeling her heart beginning to pump, Lane watched a tall, dark figure with a bit of a swagger in its walk move towards the Mercedes.
It was León.
Her instincts kicked in as she pulled out her pistol.
With a wave of her hand she was off towards the car, knowing the federales were fanning out behind her. One would take the front seat next to Gates, while the other would get in the back seat with her, trapping León in the middle.
Her feet traveled soundlessly over the fractured pavement; any noise she might have made was masked by the hum of the air conditioning units in the nearby windows.
The target was reaching for the right rear door, opening it. She could see Gates hands on the steering wheel, the white of his borrowed shirt illuminated by the interior lights of the vehicle. He sat facing straight ahead, lest Enrico glance at him too closely.
"Hola, Paco," León greeted his driver. He paused, and began to pull a packet of cigarettes from his shirt pocket.
Maybe he heard something, or maybe he sensed something, but he began to turn.
But it was too late, she was on him.
"Callese, Enrico!" Quiet! she hissed, spinning him around and jamming him against the car, the barrel of her gun pressed against the side of his neck. The cigarettes tumbled into the street. "DEA. Youre under arrest!"
The drug lord was no fool, she immediately realized. He obeyed her commands, clearly recognizing the vulnerability of his position. It would be later, she knew, when he would try to bribe them all.
Quickly, one of the federales slipped a pair of plastic handcuffs on him, as Gates gunned the big motor of the luxury car.
"Okay." She jerked Enrico towards the car door, pushing the top of his head down. "Vamos!"
she said, following the drug lord into the back seat, and slamming the door shut. The whole operation had taken ten seconds, if that.
"Hola, Rico!" Gates sneered, turning around to face his former employer. "How ya been? When the cribs a-rockin, dont come a-knockin, eh? Sorry about that!"
"Chingar!" Enrico swore, obviously recognizing his one-time security consultant.
Her lips set in a tense line, Lane shoved the drug lord down in the seat, so that his form would not be visible outside to probing eyes. "Gates," she said, giving her former partner a cold stare, "shut the fuck up and drive."
It was nearly over, Lane thought, keeping one eye on Enrico while with the other she watched the darkness-shrouded scenery blur by.
Staying on the lookout for any signs of trouble; an ambush, for instance.
It wouldnt be the first time that a cartel figure had been arrested, only to be reclaimed minutes later by law enforcement officials loyal to him, thanks to the mordida. And so she refused to let her guard down until she was back in the good old U.S. of A, with Enrico León counting ceiling tiles in a holding cell.
Gates and Enrico had immediately started jawing with one another, with the drug lord accusing his former employee of now being on the payroll of Felix Javier Benitez, head of the Juárez cartel; that it was Benitez who was behind it all. Gates had merely laughed in his face, instead taunting Enrico with lurid tales of what he planned to do to his wife, now that her husband would be indisposed.
Lane finally had to threaten them both to get them to stop. She had no desire to listen to their stories; the thought of either one or both of them being true was decidedly unappealing.
The shock absorbers of the big Mercedes were being put to the test as Gates drove the car the last 100 yards or so over unpaved rock and dirt to the rendezvous point, where the hills began to slope up towards the Sierra Madres. Lane could see the helicopter in the center of the clearing; several small flares were on the dusty earth around it, and only its navigational lights were on.
Okay, Lane sighed. "Hope your English is up to par, Enrico," she said, keeping her hand tightly gripped on his arm as they got out of the car. "Because where youre going, youre gonna need it."
She took a few steps toward the shadow of the chopper, her eyes searching the darkness for Starks.
"How did it go?"
She spun around. It was Starks, behind her, with a group of other men. More federales, she decided. Squinting against the bright headlights of the Mercedes, she was just able to make out the AK-47 looped over his shoulder.
"Not a scratch on him," she told her boss, still feeling a tenseness in her gut.
"Not that we put there, anyway," Gates chortled, edging the drug lord in his side with his elbow.
"Really," Starks said, sounding mildly surprised. "I would have thought he wouldve put up more of a fight. But, no matter."
"I dont know who you are," Enrico said, his lightly accented voice firm and unafraid. "But I do know whos paying you. You will all be dead men if you dont release me now, do you hear me?"
"I dont think so," the special agent-in-charge said, lifting his AK-47 and pointing it at the drug lord.
The muscles of Enricos cheeks twitched in a thinly veiled rage. This was a man used to getting his own way.
"And what are you doing mixed up in this, chica?" Enrico turned his attention to Lane, his eyes liquid brown, his skin so smooth and dark. "I could give you a better life than this," he said softly, as though the conversation were a personal matter between just the two of them. "One so beautiful as you deserves the very best!"
"No thanks," Lane said, skeptically lifting an eyebrow. "Ive seen how you treat your women. Cmon." She heard footsteps approaching behind them. From the helicopter, no doubt.
Good. She was ready to go. Shed had enough of this place. Enough of the bullshit.
And enough of everything that men like Enrico León represented. "Lets get you into"
"Hold it right there, Lane."
If the situation hadnt been so preposterous, she wouldve laughed aloud right then and there - at the sound of a dozen semi-automatics and AK-47s being brought to attention, and pointed directly at her. A scene right out of Butch and Sundance, she crazily thought, staring at Starks in utter disbelief.
"Youve got to be fucking kidding me," she said flatly, reluctantly lifting her arms into the air as groping hands searched for and found her Glock.
"Oh, its no joke," Starks said calmly. "You will now step away from Señor León, please."
In the glare of the headlights it was difficult to make out Starks allies; some were wearing the uniform of the local police, she could tell that much. Muscle for hire, sold to the highest bidder. The question was, to whom?
"You too, Romero." Starks used his weapon to point the way.
"I said move!" And with a motion of his hand, a gunshot sounded. One of the two federales with them on the takedown slumped to the ground, blood pooling around his head. His companion panicked, seeing the bloody writing on the wall, and bolted towards the distant road. Hed barely taken a full step before he, too, was cut down.
"What is your fucking problem?" Gates swore, a mixture of fear and anger in his voice. "You bastardo! You told me it was only her and León you were after"
"Enough!" Starks cut him off. The rotor blades on the helicopter began to grind to life. "Do you think Id let you walk out of here, with everything you know? You loud-mouthed asshole! Im just making good on what should have happened to you back in Miami."
"Who got to you, Starks?" Lane wanted to know, her voice hard. By God, if she were going down, she wanted to know what the hell for. And by whose hand. "Whos got you in their wallet?"
"Its Felix, isnt it?" Enrico offered, citing the name of his archrival. The drug lord sounded not quite as confident as he had before the shooting. This was new for him, Lane could tell, this being on the wrong side of the barrel of a gun. "Whats he paying you? Ill double it. Triple it!"
Lanes stomach churned. God, it was all beginning to make sense.
The whirling air currents from the helicopter began to lift her hair and kick up a cloud of dust, further plaguing her vision. "It is Benitez, isnt it?"
"Hey." Starks shrugged. "It pays the bills. All that alimony and child support adds up. What can I say Lane," she could hear the smile in his voice, "Its a win/win situation for me. This," he waved his AK-47 at the bodies of the two federales on the ground, "will look like a shoot-out between warring cartel factions. And, coincidentally, it will turn out that an agent from the El Paso office was killed at the same time in a helicopter accident. Lost and presumed dead over the Gulf of California while on a fact-finding mission." He paused. "You."
"No," Lane whispered. This was impossible. It shouldnt be happening.
But it was.
"Enrico León gets taken down, and with him the Mazatlán cartel. Itll be great P.R. for the new administration. All without an expensive trial where he mightve ended up taking a walk anyway, in the end. Best of all, my patron, Señor Benitez, loses his competition. "
"Chinga tu madre," Enrico spat out, but Starks ignored him.
"Why?" Lane demanded, stalling for time. Wracking her brain, trying to think of anything to distract him, anyway to get out of this. Refusing to concede that after all shed been through in her life, after all the danger shed faced and survived, that it had come down to this.
Betrayed by one of her own.
"Hes easier to deal with dead than alive." Starks nodded towards the drug lord. "And so are you, Sinclair," he said coldly. "The timing couldnt have been better, thanks to you. I knew I needed someone good to bring me León. And I certainly couldnt count on this fool." He motioned to Gates, who looked as pale and shaken as shed ever seen him. "And you..." he sighed, the barest hint of regret in his voice, "I knew it would only be a matter of time before you tracked Benitezs trail to me. Youre too good. Too dangerous to have out there. You shook up a lot of people in San Diego, you know."
"They had it coming," she said, defiantly drawing herself up to her full height. "And so do you."
"I dont think so." Starks lifted his AK-47 towards Gates. Lane could sense movement behind her, as well.
"Por favor," dont do this jefe, I beg of you!" Gates fell to his knees, tears streaking his face.
"Ill give you a million dollars," Enrico said hastily, his voice quavering like the shadows playing in the headlights from the car. He strained against his handcuffs. "Cash. Tonight. If you just take me--"
Suddenly, Starks turned the AK-47 on Enrico León. And started firing.
Fuck! This was it.
She heard not a sound from Enrico over the rat-a-tat-a-tat of the automatic, over the gnashing of the choppers rotors. But she did hear his body fall to the ground even as she tucked and rolled, pulling a knife from her boot.
A high-pitched wail.
Shed heard the sound once before, back in Miami when shed broken Gates fingers.
Scrambling. More gunshots.
She could make out Starks form, twisting, turning to place her in his sights. Coming up on one knee, she threw her knife, taking some small satisfaction in the way it sliced into his upper arm.
"You bitch!" he roared, temporarily losing his grip on his weapon.
But there were others, too many others, and all she knew was that she had to get out of there, right now. She hurled herself towards the safety of the darkness just beyond the perimeter of light, the taste of blood and dust choking her.
She tried to will her feet to move faster as she scrambled over the loose earth, running from the shouts behind her, the gunfire. She was so close to the darkness, so close to the void, to safety, that she reached out her hand to touch it and then she felt the bullets rip into her body, spinning her around.
There was no pain, just heat, a fire, almost electrical in its intensity; in her back, her side, her head, and then she was numb, slammed to the ground, a part of the dust. A part of the blood.
She wanted to breathe, but she couldnt. Her body refused to respond. This is it. This is fuckin it.
Her eyes had closed, but still she could see the lights. From the car? From the helicopter?
And then there was a roaring sound, a whirlwind, and the light was drawing closer closer. Until it was right on top of her. Its not supposed to be like this, she thought, her anger and indignation spiking through the numbness; through the muddled haze, and through the encroaching coldness she felt in her limbs.
This is all wrong.
And then she didnt care anymore.
To be continued.
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