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.
They descended from the Casa Mariposa down through the hills, winding their way in the SUVs on dusty roads towards the cobbled streets of Mazatlán; driving through the plaza of the Old Town, past the Moorish-styled Cathedral and the recently restored theater, heading for the docks.
Heading for Felix Javier Benitez, kingpin of the Juárez cartel.
She was the widow of the Falcon, swooping down towards the hungry mouth of the lion.
The streets were already full of people, tourists and locals alike; a cruise ship or two had to be in port, Teresa guessed, and sure enough as they drew closer to the pier, she could see the colorful funnels of several of the jumbo sized vessels peeking over the corrugated roofs of the terminal. To the north, in the skies over the miles of sandy beaches known as the Zona Dorada the Gold Zone the rainbow canopies of several parasailers were already in the air, off to an early start.
The original inhabitants of Mazatlán would be hard-pressed to recognize it now, Teresa considered, what with its luxury hotels and condominiums, neon nightlife and discos, and the bullfights put on primarily to satisfy the whims of the touristas. Development and growth had long since encroached upon the flowering, salt water estuaries and the fingers of land that had formed the natural harbor which had attracted the conquistadors in the first place, as well as the pirates who subsequently preyed upon them.
Mazatlán meant the place of the deer in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, although theyd never actually ventured this far west to the Pacific, and it had been highly prized by the Spaniards whod claimed it for its sheltered harbor. The area soon became a port of departure for treasure galleons laden with the gold and silver plucked from the Sierra Madres.
In more recent times, when the dun-colored hills had at last played out and the mines had fallen into ruin, the sport fishers and shrimpers moved in, to the point where 40 tons of shrimp a year had passed through the towns processing plant.
But today, the streets of Mazatlán told a different story.
It was a place where the excesses of the tourist trade did battle on a daily basis with the tattered, dying threads of a noble culture; where the shrimpers were being edged out by the narcotraficantes, and where the herds of deer that had once roamed freely were now relegated to the salt marshes and estuary channels south of town.
The Sierra Madres reared up behind them to the east; jagged, scrabbly peaks shimmering through the jungle haze of the lowlands, a silent witness to all that had come before, and what was yet to be.
Teresa adjusted the sunglasses on her face and released a heavy sigh. The world would go on spinning just fine without her, she knew that. Whether or not her plan to bring down Benitez worked; whether or not she could rid herself of the chains of the León family once and for all and whether or not she could ever find the words or the courage to explain to the tall dark woman riding silently by her side that she stirred something within her she did not yet dare put a name to, something that shed long ago decided had been dead to her.
And now she didnt know what to think.
What to feel.
Shed been hurt when Lane had rejected her last week. Hurt, and a little angry, too, not to mention highly embarrassed. And so shed done her best to avoid her since, to keep it strictly business between them.
Lane didnt understand how could she? Teresa had wanted her to, desperately so, but the agent hadnt given her a chance to explain, not really. They needed to talk, and soon. She realized that, now. She wanted needed her support, her compassion, her--
"Here we are, Señora."
The Suburban braked to a stop at the edge of the docks. Teresa blinked, rousing herself, and turned to see Manuel staring at her from the front seat. Just past his shoulder she could see the gleaming white hull of Benitezs boat. Yacht, more like it, with its long gleaming lines thrusting skyward, its sweeping bow and tinted windows.
Figures were moving about on the deck, several were obviously deckhands, dressed in white, tending to the ship. Others wore street clothes and watched the dock carefully, the guns on their hips in plain sight.
Teresa tensed. Well, that cant be good for tourism. However, when the harbormaster was on the mordida, official heads tended to turn the other way.
Her driver opened her door and she stepped out into the bright morning sun, breathing in the fresh salt air. She could see Manuel speaking to the rest of her men whod poured out of the vehicle behind them, beckoning them towards the yacht.
"No," she said, noting with some annoyance that Lane was casually leaning against the side of the SUV, arms folded, content to merely observe what she knew would come next.
"Señora?" Manuel continued to move the men towards the dock, trying to bluster his way past her. The asshole. Theyd already discussed this. He knew what she wanted.
"I said no." She reached out and caught him by the bicep as he tried to push by, stopping him in his tracks.
"But Señora," he said through gritted teeth, flashing his dark eyes towards the gangway. "This is madness!"
"You are to remain here until we return."
"Miss Sinclair and I," she told him firmly. "Just as we planned." Already, Teresa was regretting allowing him to accompany her this far. But shed had little choice in the matter, really. The men expected it of her of him. And giving him free rein was the best way of keeping him in line, she understood that, now, more than ever.
"Benitez is a cockroach, Señora! He cannot be trusted! After what he did to Enrico what he could do"
"This is an invitation to lunch." Teresa could sense Lane drawing up behind her now, silently adding her support. "I choose to take the señor at his word. He would be foolish to try anything today."
"Please take no offense, Señora," Manuel said, his mouth a tight line. "But it is you who are being foolish. And if you think this this gringa can protect you today," he thrust his stubbly chin out towards Lane, "then you are sadly mistaken."
Teresas head started to pound, and once more she wished she were away, far away, anywhere but here on the edge of this dock, the edge of the earth, ready to teeter off of it if she made one false move. Fighting against her natural instincts that screamed at her to flee, she stepped closer to Manuel. "I do take offense," she said, her voice low, "at having my decisions challenged. Youre not challenging me, are you, Manuel?"
The Mexican did not answer at first. Instead, he swallowed hard and turned a scathing glare towards Lane.
"No no Señora," he mumbled at last, lowering his eyes.
"At least take this."
She felt the cold hard steel of an automatic pistol being thrust into her hand. She almost laughed aloud. God, how she hated guns! Enrico had forced her to learn how to use one, true, and how she had resented him for it!
Nothing good ever came of them, nothing. Especially in the business circles in which they moved.
"The señora said no." Lanes voice, behind her. "The first thing theyll do anyway is search us. We dont want to start out on the wrong foot give Benitez any reason to be suspicious."
She could read the argument in Manuels eyes, see the combative set to his muscular body; clearly he was not used to having his advice challenged. Maybe she was being foolish; maybe this was the wrong play, going to meet Benitez like a lamb to the slaughter. But dammit, this was how she wanted it. This was the only way for her plan to work, she knew that. And somehow, with Lane Sinclair backing her up, she felt protected. Safe. In a way she never had with Enrico.
She slapped the automatic back against Manuels middle, forcing him to grab at it. "We should only be a few hours. Wait here."
Manuel would be trouble later on. She had no doubt of that, now. She only hoped that when it did happen, it would be too late for him to change things. But for the moment, still simmering, he accepted the rebuke and ground out a "Si, Señora," as the muscles in his jaw flexed.
She spun on her heel and wordlessly moved toward the yacht, knowing Lane would follow. Her feet clattered on the wooden dock as she stepped down onto the planking, and she watched as with the quick motions of a deckhand a retractable gangway began to hum, extending its way towards the dock.
She took in a deep breath, trying to rein in her galloping emotions, watching as the gangway approached, fearing that first step off of terra firma into the unknown. She could feel the heat of the sun warming her shoulders, and the eyes of Manuel Diaz boring into her back. There would be no going back from this, no retreat. For a brief moment, she felt lightheaded, dizzy.
And then there was Lanes light touch on her elbow, steadying her, and she somehow found the voice within herself to address the young man in dress whites who stood at the top of the gangway.
"Permission to come aboard?"
Lane Sinclair didnt much care for boats.
It wasnt the water. Shed never been seasick a day in her life, and in fact she was a very strong swimmer, although fat lot of good that did you when you were 20 miles from any shore.
Perhaps part of it was her own sense of restlessness. No matter how big the boats were, there were only so many places you could go, only so far you could walk and then bam. A railing or a gunwale stopped you, holding you back, reminding you of your physical limitations: that you were up against a much larger adversary, one that was destined to win nearly every time. Only the very lucky or the very foolish ever dared to cheat the sea, and survived to tell the tale.
But there was another reason why Lane had no time for boats.
A deeper, more painful reason, one that she tried to keep buttoned down and locked up deep in her heart. It hurt to take it out and look at it, hurt to examine it in the light of day, and so she simply pretended it didnt exist at all.
Most days, it was easy for her to do so.
But other days, days like today when she least expected it to, it bobbed to the surface and bit her right in the ass.
She never knew her father. Before she was born, he had sailed away in a boat.
Or a ship, as her mother had taken great pains to call it.
And hed never come home.
How well shed learned the litany as a child! How many times her mother had repeated it to her; the story had gradually become a comfort to them both. It was all they had, really, the single, brittle thread which bound them together to a dead man.
The story was always the same. There had been bad men in a land far away who her daddy had to go and fight. Fight for his country, fight to keep his own family safe: her big brother, Robbie, her mommy, and the little baby Mommy had growing in her tummy.
Her mother would hold the picture of her father in her hand every time as she retold the tale, a dull heaviness present in her voice that matched the lifelessness in her eyes. For Madeline Sinclair, her own existence had ended the day her husbands ship had been blasted out of the water in the Gulf of Tonkin, despite the growing needs of the child at her knee gazing up at her with big blue eyes and dark features; a little girl who looked so much like the love she had lost, a little girl who needed a love that her crippled soul was incapable of providing.
Lieutenant Robert Flynn Sinclair.
Smiling, always smiling in his picture, with a handsome, chiseled face that would never age, dressed in starched naval whites, standing in front of his big ship.
Robbie had been two and a half when their father was killed, and as children hed always teased her that hed known their daddy, that he remembered him, while she did not could not. It had been childish teasing, she knew that, but even so it had been the first shove of a wedge between them, one that had grown out of all proportion to the initial slight, and by the time their mother had died several years ago, she hadnt spoken to him in nearly a decade.
Theyd taken her daddy away and killed him.
Lost at sea was what her mommy had said.
She remembered her first time on a boat.
Theyd still been living in Virginia then, and it must have been Norfolk where her mother took her and Robbie that day for some sort of an open house or fair. Lots of other kids were there with their mommies and daddies. It was a bright summer day and the sun was warm. She liked the feel, the heat of the sun upon her; it reminded her of those too few times when her mommy would lift her up and hold her, and snuggle.
There were big boats there, tied up along the dock, and lots of men, too, laughing and smiling, wearing their crisp white clothes. It didnt take long before shed spied one man in particular, and shed pulled away from her mother and ran up to him, her dark hair flying, breathless, her heart pounding.
"Are you my daddy?"
The nice man had smiled and laughed, and leaned down to pat her on the head. "No," hed told her. She heard the laughter of the others around her, but she didnt understand. Her daddy had been lost. Surely, her mommy had taken her to this place so she could find him!
But then she saw another man, not very far away, and he looked just like the man in the picture. This one, he must be her daddy! And so her small feet had quickly chugged their way to him, and shed grabbed at the back of his pant-leg as hed started to move off through the crowd, stopping him just in time.
"Mister, are you my daddy?"
Her mother had caught up to her by then, and once more shed heard the laughter, confusing her. Why was her mother apologizing? And why was the man in white walking away? He might get lost again in the crowd if they let him go.
"But Mommy, I found Daddy!"
Shed been too young to recognize the pained expression on her mothers face, the hurt that was as though shed torn open an aching wound that had only just begun to heal, too young to understand that the joke was on her.
She lost track of how many men in naval whites shed stopped and questioned that day. But she did remember the moment when her mothers patience had at last worn too thin, and the hurt and despair turned to anger and resentment.
"Stop it Laney, just stop it!" her mother had cried out, daubing at the perspiration on her face with a worn handkerchief. "Your fathers dead, and hes not coming back, do you understand me?"
Lane had been too stunned to respond. Shed simply stood there, her blue eyes filling with tears, even as Robbies face had flushed bright red too, caught up in the emotion of the moment.
Her mother had looked down at her, wild-eyed, her lips drawn tightly closed. She reached out and shook Lane by the arm. "I said, do you understand me?"
Robbie had started to wail then, hiccupping and crying like he always did whenever he went running to their mother ratting out on her. It was always her fault, always, and obviously shed done something very wrong this time, to have made her mother so upset.
Lane had simply nodded her head yes in answer to her mothers question. She didnt understand, not at all, but she was willing to say anything if it made her mother stop yelling. She hated it when she yelled, and she seemed to do it a lot more than the other mommies she knew.
Little Laney had wanted to cry then, to give herself that mindless bit of release, but she forced herself to hold back the tears. Robbie was such a big baby anyway, let him cry enough tears for them both.
Later, by way of repentance, her mother had offered to take them on a boat ride. Lane hadnt wanted to go but Robbie gladly had along with a bunch of other kids, and although she feared getting on the boat, she feared angering her mother more, and so shed finally agreed.
It would be just a quick cruise around the harbor, her mother told her, and shed wait for them right here on the dock. The other kids were laughing and waving as the motor launch cast off, but not Lane. She sat ramrod straight on the small bench that served as her seat, ignoring the hey there, little girl chatter of yet another man in white who fastened a small life jacket on her. And as the dock receded into the distance, as the figure of her mother became a dot upon the shore, Lane felt the fear spike through her then, churning at her stomach despite the calmness of the light swells on the water.
They would be lost, she knew it, just like her daddy had been. They would never make it back, and then she and Robbie would end up being nothing more than smiling images in that picture, standing next to their father.
The ten-minute boat ride seemed an eternity to her.
She took no notice of the distant ocean, of the big boats they passed by, of the tiny pinpricks of buildings along the coast. Her small hands gripped the railing, knuckles drawn and white, and she paid no mind to the spray that occasionally misted upon her face. At last shed had to squeeze her eyes closed, to shut it all out, concentrating only on the sound of her breathing and visualizing the distant shore she feared she might never step foot on again.
She didnt actually believe it when they finally returned to the dock, didnt at first hear her mother calling out to her, or Robbies "Whats the matter with you, Laney? Lets go!"
Somehow they were able to release her grip from the rail and pry her out of the boat, and only when her feet were back on solid ground did she realize that shed made it, that she wasnt lost at sea. Her mother had looked down at her curiously, perplexed, and perhaps had decided that her daughter was on the verge of acting up again. In a preemptive strike, shed quickly ushered her and Robbie to the cotton candy stand, in an attempt to bribe a smile out of her. "Cmon, Laney. Its a nice day," shed said, her voice tired. "Lets not spoil it, okay?" The candy was pink and fluffy and sickeningly sweet, and it stuck in her dry, frozen throat, choking her.
To this day, she couldnt stand the sight or the smell of it.
So what if theyd made it back to the dock if theyd come home?
Shed finally realized the truth of it then, and let go of the wishful, hopeful thinking of her childs mind, and understood at last that her father never, ever would return.
"Would you like more shrimp salad?"
"No, gracias," Teresa said, daubing at her lips with a linen napkin.
The drug lord turned to Lane, offering her the same hospitality. What the hell. She took another scoop.
Felix Javier Benitez, head of the Juárez drug cartel, was nothing if not a generous host.
From the moment she and Teresa had come aboard and were led past the brass and gold fittings, through the ornately decorated saloon, and up onto the oversized flybridge with its full wet bar and upholstered dining area, they had been made to feel like a couple of guests taken out on the water for a luxury cruise.
And indeed, a cruise was just what it had been, with the gentlemanly, erudite Felix Benitez pointing out sights of interest as they journeyed farther out into the Sea of Cortés, past the lighthouse, past the pleasure boats, past prying eyes and the possibility of hidden surveillance equipment. Now, they were at anchor, and there wasnt another watercraft in view. Very secure and secluded. Anything could happen out here, anything, and theyd be at Benitezs mercy.
Not something she was comfortable with at all.
Still, other than the armed men on deck, Benitez hadnt pressed the conversation towards the real reason for their visit. Instead, during the five-course luncheon, theyd learned all about his son who was studying art in Spain, about his daughter who, despite his protestations of weariness over her jet-set antics, was clearly the apple of his eye.
And about his love of the sea.
"I spend most of my time farther north, you understand," Benitez was saying, his pudgy hands resting comfortably on his stomach. He eased back in his seat and looked past them, to the shimmering turquoise waters. "But at least twice a year I try to come down this way for the marlin." He returned his attention to them, and let his gaze rest upon Teresa. "Magnificent creatures. And the fight they give you," Lane could see his grandfatherly eyes harden, "the best in all the world, I say." A pause. "Have you ever fished for the marlin, Señora?"
"No," Teresa replied. "I dont fish at all."
"Ah," Benitez absorbed this. "A pity." He motioned for a refill of his wineglass, and before the gesture was even completed, a waiter was at his side, pouring the crimson liquid. "Its been about five years now, as I recall," he rubbed at his clean-shaven chin, "that I had the fight of my life down here with one. What a big boy he was, eh, Juan?"
"Si, Señor!" the armed deckhand leaning against the railing behind Teresa, chuckled. He held his arms out the length of his body. "Grande!"
"Its the same every time, with every big fish you hook," Benitez continued. "At first, you dont know if youve really got him. Will he get away? The fish himself isnt really sure does not understand what has happened to him who has snared him. It is the last place he ever expected to be on the end of a hook. But then he realizes. And the fight begins in earnest." A pause. "Do you know what the secret is to reeling in a big fish, Señora?"
Teresa wordlessly shook her blonde head no. She was playing it cool so far, Lane observed. Just as they had planned. Good girl.
"It is giving him free rein at first," Benitez told her. "You let the line play out let him run. You tire him without him even knowing it! And each time, at the end of it, you work him back towards the boat. He begins to tire, but so do you! Then it becomes a question of who is stronger, who can outlast the other." The old man took a sip of his wine, remembering. "It was from late morning until just after sundown that the big fish and I did battle with one another. A noble adversary to be sure, but only one of us was destined to win, and there could be no doubt that it would be me, Señora, do you understand?"
"Yes," Teresa whispered in reply, and Lane felt her own anger begin to stir. The bastard. A wolf in his cruise directors clothing. How certain he was of his success, whether it was against a poor defenseless fish, or the widow of the man he had murdered.
"Finally, I knew the end was near. The fish had fought well, but he was tired now. His blood was in the water, and the predators of the night began to encircle him; the sharks, you see, they could smell death, and I feared I might lose him to them that he would get away from me, after all."
A heavy sigh. "But no. After one final half-hearted run that was more of an echo of his earlier strength, I was able to pull him alongside, and we gaffed him aboard. Even then he still struggled. Would not give up the fight. You see," Benitez leaned forward, his voice grown cold, "he did not realize that the fight was over. That he had lost. That he was destined to lose from the moment when I first put my hook in the water."
Lane noticed that Teresa kept her eyes on him, that she didnt flinch, and she felt a flare of pride at that. Because here it comes, she thought. Finally.
"I am so sorry for the loss of your husband, Señora." His voice was warm again. Comforting.
"So youve said, Señor," Teresa responded, her posture stiffening.
"A good man, in a sea where there are many dangers."
Lane could hear the water lapping against the hull, feel the gentle rise and fall of the boat beneath her, see the seabirds diving through the air overhead. Just another day on the water, in the company of sharks.
"It is difficult to navigate those waters alone."
"My husband loved the sea. He was brought up on it."
"Ah, but thats my point, Señora León. As good as he was, he was not quite good enough, eh? Let alone taking into consideration someone like yourself, for instance, a woman with no experience at all."
"Im not as inexperienced as you might think, Señor." Teresa pushed her plate away, her eyes flashing. "I was not completely unaware of my husbands business activities."
Easy, Teresa. Easy. Lane did not let her eyes betray the alarm she felt. Teresa was supposed to be doing the helpless, demure thing, wasnt she?
Benitez shook his head, a knowing grin playing at the corners of his mouth, the grandfather humoring the petulant child. "Would it not be better to relieve yourself of this most distasteful burden? To turn to one who is far more understanding of these things?" He steepled his fingers together and pressed forward, his face nearly in hers, closing for the kill. "Turn your husbands business over to me, Señora. Walk away. Find yourself a safe harbor, and stay there."
"Is that what you told my husband, before you had him murdered?"
At first, Lane knew that Teresas words hadnt immediately registered with Benitez. He kept his eyes on her, benignly awaiting the anticipated answer, at a loss to process that which he least expected to hear.
"You heard me," Teresa said tightly. "Youll never get your hands on my husbands business. Never."
It hit Benitez, then, what shed said, with all the fury of a force five hurricane. His features darkened before the storm.
"Then you shall share his fate!"
Lane wasnt sure exactly what the signal was; wasnt sure if it had even been given. All she knew was that from the corner of her eye, Juan was on the move, heading towards Teresa, reaching to his hip for his weapon.
It was almost as though shed anticipated his action, because somehow she was on her feet, intercepting him, getting in-between Teresa and his pistol, not even taking the time to understand just what the hell she thought she was doing. What she was risking.
There were shouts.
Benitezs other men were closing in, she could hear them, but her hand had already found Juans wrist and she grabbed at it just as the gun fired, close to her ear, the round splintering through the teakwood ceiling of the flybridge.
"No!" Teresa screamed.
With a vicious knee to the crotch she put Juan out of commission, and spun around just in time to meet the barrels of two pistols being jammed into her face, while another man had an uzi pointed at Teresas chest. The blonde had backed up against the wet bar, her green eyes widened in surprise, and Benitez had gotten to his feet, apoplectic, quivering with rage.
"Now, you die!"
Not again, Lane inwardly groaned. Not just when Ive gotten those other holes in me fixed!
"No!" Teresa shouted again, turning to face Benitez. "I swear to you if you do, Señor, you will have a battle on your hands the likes of which you have never seen before! My people are loyal to me," she continued, taking a step towards him, uncaring of the uzi tracking her move. "Loyal to my husband and the León family. They will fight you every step of the way, in every calle in every barrio, draining your resources, while your own people wonder why the war you wage in your own homeland looms larger than the one against el norte. They will wonder," she bit off, her voice cold now, controlled, "why you chose to follow your own selfish desire for revenge, for power, when you could have listened to a better offer, one worthy of the man who struck down El Halcón.
Lanes ear was still ringing from Juans gun firing, and she always had noticed that it was more difficult to think clearly whenever she found herself at the business end of anything .44 caliber or above, and behind her she was aware of one very pissed off right-hand-man groaning. And so she couldnt quite believe the sudden turn of events. For she was certain that shed just seen and heard Teresa blow every strategy theyd so carefully planned right the hell out of the water.
Or had she?
Benitez was showing his true colors now, showing himself for the ruthless, sadistic drug lord shed always known him to be; the elusive prey she and her fellow DEA comrades had tried so hard to snare for so many years. Sure, he could roll out the charm when it suited his purposes to do so, comfortable with the trappings of the wealth his deadly business afforded him. In his native Juaréz he supported the symphony, donated funds for city parks, gave free lunches to school children all not unexpected pursuits for the respected businessman he was.
But Lane knew the other side of the story.
Of the six men from the Policia Judicial Federal federales men whod bravely refused to go on Bentiezs mordida, who had been found dead in a field outside of Galeana, their throats slit. Nineteen children had been left without their fathers.
Of the banker in El Paso whod found a conscience and started to inform on Benitez, only to go missing. Hed never been found.
Not to mention her own personal encounter with Benitezs handiwork, in the hills outside of Mazatlán, hills that had seen the death of Gates Romero, of Enrico León and, very nearly, herself.
Benitez held up a hand, standing his men down. His eyes flickered to Lane, and she read the hardness she found there. The man would do whatever it took to suit his own ends, she knew that. And she would do whatever it took to protect Teresa León. She knew it, and he knew it, too.
"You try my patience, Señora," he said, forcibly struggling to regain control of his temper. "You come aboard my boat, enjoy my hospitality, and then insult me!"
Teresa kept her head held high, defiant, despite the precariousness of their position. "Do you want to hear what I have to say or not?"
A moment of indecision, and then, "Please. Wont you and your consultant have a seat?" Lane immediately felt the thick atmosphere of tension begin ebb away. And the guns being put away sure helped, too.
"You have planes," Teresa immediately began, sparing the niceties. "Big 727 jetliners. We have control of the airstrips you need to fly them on."
"But" This wasnt news to Benitez, Lane could see that. But the fact that Teresa knew of it, was.
"Its true, isnt it? Its what got Enrico killed. In any event," she continued, plunging head, "its our airstrips for your planes. We share in the space for the product thats transported. In addition, we give you access to our warehousing resources in Texas, New Mexico, and California."
"I dont like it," Benitez angrily responded, thrusting out his lower lip. "This gives you more control and I simply will not have it!"
"But you get so much in return," Teresa answered him, her tone more soothing now. She was selling. "The capability to move more product than you ever dreamed possible. And theres something more I can give you."
"What?" Benitez was following the bouncing ball despite his bad humor, Lane could tell that. But he was still very much on his guard.
"Access. To new markets. To completely new routes that weve established. Were crossing the border in Canada now, and the Pacific Northwest. The authorities arent even close to touching us. They dont even know were there."
Benitez drained his wineglass and ran his tongue over his thin lips. Lips that had given the orders to kill hundreds of men and women over his lifetime. "How exactly does this benefit you, Señora?"
Shes got him! How in the hell ? Lane couldnt believe it. Even with Juan standing painfully behind her now, itching to knock her silly, she didnt give a damn. Her attention was focused solely on the woman who before her very eyes seemed to be pulling their asses out of the fire.
"We help each other, Señor Benitez," she told him, her voice very logical now, sounding every inch the professional businesswoman shed become. "My late husbands business my business, merged with yours. We both win."
The drug lords eyes narrowed, thinking with barely disguised greed at the profit in what she had to say. The light breeze lifted what few gray hairs remained on his head. He may have been old, but this fox still enjoyed the hunt. "It sounds very interesting," he admitted at last, and then faintly smiled. "This was not what I expected to hear today, Señora León."
"And I never expected to be a widow, Señor Benitez. Do we have a deal?"
Their business concluded, Teresa had insisted that the boat immediately head back to port, and that was just fine with Lane Sinclair. The more space they put between themselves and Felix Benitez, not to mention Juan and his bruised manhood, the better.
Lane was still stunned at the sudden turn of events. They had gotten what they wanted after all the exchange of information and assets would start immediately. But damn, what a risk Teresa had run, changing the game plan like that! Had she completely lost her mind?
Like a great white bird gliding smoothly along on the trade winds, Benitezs yacht slipped serenely back into its berth, and the anchoring ropes had barely been secured before Teresa and Lane were off the gangway, heading back to the SUVs.
"Señora!" Manuel Diaz stood up from his slouched position against the lead black Suburban, flicking a cigarette butt to the ground beneath his feet where it joined a number of its brethren. The rest of the men, the León guaruras, roused themselves, stretching, staring sullenly out at the boat belonging to the man who had killed their beloved Enrico. "How did it go?"
"Fine," Teresa snapped. "We got what we wanted. Now give me your keys."
Lane was once again taken by surprise. What now?
"Señora, you wish to go somewhere, I drive you"
"No." Teresa snatched the keys from his hands. "I want you to go with the men back to the Casa." She kept moving towards the SUV. "Well talk later. Since weve returned so early, I intend to show Lane some of the local area. She needs to be more familiar with it if shes going to be working with us."
"Bu but "Señora!" Manuel sputtered, as Lane merely shrugged at him and headed towards the passenger seat.
"Do as I say, Manuel," Teresa told him tersely, gunning the engine. It was apparent to Lane that she wanted to get out of there, and fast. Maybe it was all catching up to her, and she wanted to distance herself from it? Who the hell knew. But shed barely climbed aboard, and her door was just swinging shut before the vehicle was lurching ahead, spinning dust and stones from its wheels.
"Jesus!" Lane swore as she fought to keep her balance. "Wheres the fire?" But Teresa didnt answer her. Her eyes were hidden once more behind her sunglasses, and her mouth was set in a tight line. Lane spared a look through the front windshield and saw that the smaller woman was directing the big SUV back through the streets of Mazatlán, pointing the way towards the mountains beyond. Okay. Obviously, a travelogue of the city was the last thing on Teresas mind.
"Uh what the hell happened back there?"
"On the docks or on the boat?"
"Take your pick," Lane grumbled, massaging at an elbow that had been assaulted by the slamming car door.
For a moment, Lane thought Teresa wasnt going to answer her. And then, "I I couldnt let him walk all over me. Im tired of it. Tired of people like him spouting off his bullshit. He wants to help me?" Teresa took a turn hard, barely evading a corner papaya stand. "If he only knew."
"You could have been killed. You know that, right?" Lane rubbed at the back of her neck. Those hours spent on the water, with the sunlight reflecting off of it, mustve given her a freaking headache. Or maybe it had been that gunshot at close quarters. And this whiplash ride, courtesy of Teresa León, wasnt helping matters any.
"But you stopped him, didnt you." Teresa jammed on the brakes at the last traffic signal on the road out of town. They ground to a stop. "Why?" She turned to her, and in the reflection from her sunglasses Lane could see an image of herself, slack-jawed, stunned.
Well, that was a helluva question. She had put her own life on the line for the widow of El Halcón. Why? She didnt exactly know why, come to think of it, but then she heard her own voice, hollow inside the metal cavern of the SUV, answering, helplessly betraying her. "Because because I dont want to see anything happen to you, thats why."
Teresa turned away. "Why should you care?" The signal changed, and once again the SUV jumped out onto the road. "You didnt seem to last week."
Lane sighed, the pounding in her head reaching a raucous crescendo. The words stung. "Is that what all this is about? That night?"
Teresa said nothing, but the agent could see her lower lip tremble. God, this woman was so tough to get a handle on! She could be so hard, so forceful one minute, and the next, she was threatening to shatter into a thousand pieces.
"I care," she admitted. "You know I do. Its just " she searched for more delicate words, for a way of explaining it all that would soften the blow, and then realized that there were no words for it other than what was the truth. "I cant stand to see you sticking needles into yourself, Teresa. You youre better than that." There. It was out. And it was the truth, as far as her heart allowed her to see it to be.
The trembling lip stiffened. "How dare you judge me, Lane Sinclair." Another hairpin curve, taken on the fly. "We all have our escapes. Whether its those cancer sticks you smoke, the V.O. you drink" a sideways glance, "oh, Ive noticed, or or a little push. How dare you!"
"I dare because I care, God-dammit!" Lane shouted, meeting her rising voice. "Dont you get it? Or have you forgotten how to feel that, too, because youre so fucking numb all the time! Its easier for you that way, isnt it? Not feeling not caring, not letting someone else in."
Teresas hands tightened on the steering wheel and she kept her eyes focused straight ahead, the line of the road her lifeline, as the pockmarked macadam surface turned into rutted dirt and gravel.
"And I ought to know, honey," Lane bitterly railed on, astounded at the candid level of her disclosure. But dammit, Teresa had pissed her off. "Believe me, I know all about that."
Her last words echoed around her, angry, hurtful words that shot out of her mouth like bullets shot from a gun, bullets she had no hope of ever retrieving. For Gods sake, theyd had a plan she had a plan! It wasnt her choice to be here, she hadnt asked to get caught up in all the bullshit between Benitez, his stooge David Starks, and Enrico León. And it seemed as though every time she tried to get out, to get away, she simply ended up sinking deeper and deeper into the quagmire that was the world of Teresa León. Worst of all, sometimes she wondered whether shed really been trying that hard to escape. Those times when she lay awake at night, thinking of the cool silken touch of Teresas hands upon her body, she was ashamed to say she knew the answer.
Then, "I Im sorry for changing things around back there." The younger womans voice was barely audible, and shed slowed down the speed of the SUV. Surrendering. "But we got what we wanted, didnt we? You got what you wanted."
More silence, as Lane considered those words. Hell, it was the closest thing to an apology she would ever get from the woman, that was for sure, so she decided to take it. And in any event, what Teresa said was true. In fact, maybe it was even better than their original plan, sparing them valuable time and effort in a protracted dance of negotiations filled with flowery, obtuse proposals and obsequious double entendres.
"Its okay," Lane muttered. "Youre right. It worked." She let her eyes drift to the scenery
ahead of them, watching curiously as the lush green vegetation of the terra caliente began to bleed away into shades of taupe and cinnamon the higher they went into the hills. "So. Where are we going, anyway?"
"Teresa?" Lane eased closer to her. Clearly, the woman was on a mission. And, come to think of it, their speed in exiting Mazatlán probably had just as much to do with insuring they had no one following them, as it did with Teresas frame of mind.
"Theres something I need to show you," Teresa said at last. "Something you need to see."
And with that statement Lane could see the pain taking hold of her features, a pain emanating from somewhere deep within, buried so far down that she could not hope to reach it, regardless of her desire to do so, to take it away from her, to spare her of it.
No, she could not reach it, not that Teresa would ever let her. And because of that, as they silently pressed higher into the hidden shadows of the Sierra Madres, Lane found herself quietly grieving for them both.
To be continued.
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