Friday, July 29, 2016

My very own golden statue...

Thank you so much for all the congrats! I'm still floating on air. San Diego is my new favorite city. Quick, somebody get married! I have some fabulous dresses I need to wear more than once. :-)

A couple of people asked what kind of a book FLASH FIRE is. Well... Characters include a goodie-two-shoes female investigator, a lawless, former-SEAL mercenary, Brunhilda--a German librarian who runs a brothel on Mexico's southern border, some seriously badass banditos, and an invasion of chickens. If you were looking for a story about a quiet small town in Montana with a cute sheriff who opens doors for the ladies...this is NOT that story. If you read FLASH FIRE, prepare for a rough ride... Here is an introduction to Clara and Walker. :-)

Chapter One

Nothing woke up a man as quickly in the morning as a scorpion in his pants. The world—which at the moment for Light Walker consisted of the arachnid’s alarming proximity to his most sensitive parts—snapped into focus real fast.

Walker slowly unfolded from his crouching position at the foot of the balsa tree where he’d fallen asleep. Bomb squads moved with less care. He unfastened his belt, unzipped his fly, then—barely breathing—he gently eased his pants away from his body to make a way out for the intruder.

Most people thought scorpions lived in deserts, but his experience said otherwise. Some species liked the rainforest just fine.

He didn’t bother wondering how the damned thing had gotten in despite the fact that his cargo pants were fastened at the ankles. The leeches, scorpions, and other bugs had mystical ways of sneaking past even the best defenses—one of the laws of the jungle.

Instead of reaching in to where the scorpion’s legs tickled his skin, he waited. He knew too well the pain of a sting as it spread through his body, and the accompanying blurred vision he couldn’t afford right now. He’d been bitten not a week back on his elbow, an experience he didn’t care to repeat.

Two days before that, he’d been bitten by a snake. Probably a sign that his luck was running out and he should leave. Another man might have taken the hint. Walker rejected the thought as quickly as it came to him.

“Come on. Out,” he said under his breath. “Get moving.”

Three inches long, coffee brown, and carrying a world of hurt in its stinger, the scorpion inched up on his lower abdomen like it had all the time in the world.

Walker maneuvered his shirttail in front of the little sucker until it climbed onto the fabric. Once the scorpion was off his skin, he reached for the knife on his belt and used the blade to flick the damned thing into the bushes that stood a dozen feet to his right. “Adios, amigo.”

Then he drew his first full breath of the morning. “Hijo de puta.”

As the Mexican jungle sang its lively song around him, he shoved the knife back into its ballistic nylon sheath that hung to the side.

The knife was just the right size and, due to the light aluminum handle, just the right weight. The Mark II combat knife—a classic since Vietnam—and its six-and-a-half inch, double-serrated steel blade had saved his life more times than he could count. Guns had an unfortunate tendency to run out of bullets, or jam, but a good blade never let a man down, for a damn fact.

He fastened his pants, then stretched his stiff muscles. He swore under his breath one more time as he looked after the scorpion.

Could have turned out a lot worse.

He scanned the ground to make sure there’d be no further nasty surprises. The silver-embroidered black sombrero he’d stolen the day before leaned against the tree next to him. He even checked under that.

When he was sure his small area was clear, he folded his six-foot frame into a low crouch again and leaned his back against the balsa tree, the same position he’d spent most of the night in, waiting for the convoy, and—most importantly—the noseless man.

Walker rubbed the last remnants of sleep from his eyes. Hot, humid air filled his lungs as he inhaled the distinct smell of a rainforest—the smell of things growing, flowering, decomposing—the smell of life and death all mixed into one.

Controlled breath in. He checked his watch. Controlled breath out.

He rubbed his hand over his face. He’d fallen asleep. Shit.

He was damned lucky the convoy was late.

They couldn’t have come already. No way would he have slept through the trucks’ passing. He was a light sleeper. For the most part, he existed on quick combat naps, a habit he’d developed in the navy. If the trucks had come, he would have been awake and alert at the first sound that wasn’t part of the jungle’s usual music.

The first hint of human intrusion wouldn’t come from truck engines but from a slight change in the bird song, in the tone of the monkeys’ screeching. The rainforest had its own alarm system to warn of predators.

The local indigenous tribes—Tzeltal and Tojolabal—the proud descendants of the Maya, could read the jungle noises like a news report. Walker knew the basics, the different cries for snake, jaguar, man, different again for an approaching storm.

He listened for the slightest change of sound around him.

Monkeys called good morning to each other above, in high-pitched, manic shrieks. The bugs produced the background sound, their unending song rising and falling, almost like listening to waves crash against the beach. Moisture dripped from leaves above to leaves below, lending another layer to the symphony. Nothing unusual.

Walker let himself relax.

A million shades of green that existed nowhere else on earth but in rainforests surrounded him. Leaves glistened in the sun like jewels. Lianas cascaded from above like an emerald waterfall.

A toucan poked its head from a tree hollow—probably had a nest there—its large green-orange beak a new splash of color.

“What’s up, Sam?” Walker asked the bird. They knew each other from the day before when Walker had first come here to scout out the clearing.

The toucan flew off. Not into morning chit-chat. Walker could relate.

Parrots flashed between the branches—red, blue, yellow—like flowers dancing in the air.

Some people found the jungle beautiful and returned to it over and over as if to a lover. Walker wasn’t here to enjoy the scenery. Where another person might have seen paradise, he saw a killing field.

After two years of careful planning, today was the day: the beginning of the end. He was ready.

He checked his guns—first the SIG P226, twenty-round magazine loaded with 9mm Parabellums; then the semiautomatic rifle, an M14 with a twenty-round detachable box magazine and five-hundred-yard effective firing range.

He stuck with weapons he was already familiar with from his navy days. He needed the dependability, something tried and true. Between the two, they gave him forty shots before reloading. He carried extra magazines in the side pockets of his pants.

He checked his watch again. The convoy was over an hour late.

Eyes narrowed, he looked to the south, not that he could see far through the dense foliage. Maybe the information that the schedule had been brought forward by three weeks was just bait in a trap. Somebody could be setting him up.

Even as unease had him shifting his weight from one foot to the other, the jungle’s music changed to a different, harsher tone. He gripped the M14 and assumed a battle-ready stance. His surroundings came into a sharp focus. He breathed deeply, evenly. Here we go.

Another full minute passed before a low rumble from the distance finally reached his ears. The sound disappeared the next second, then returned, then amplified.

He kept low and held still in the cover of the achiote bushes that stood between him and the dirt road passing about ten feet ahead, winding through the small clearing chosen for the ambush. The trucks were coming from the direction of the Guatemalan border, heading north, deeper into Mexico, a well-traveled drug-smuggling route.

One minute ticked by, then two, three, four before a beat-up Jeep appeared in the lead. Walker bided his time and waited for the two trucks he knew would be following.

The sound of rumbling motors grew as the vehicles neared, drowning out most of the jungle noises, except for the rush of wings directly above Walker as half a dozen birds took flight with sharp cries. He felt none of their panic, just the opposite. As he touched a hand to the dog tags hanging under his shirt—one his, the other his brother’s—a deadly calm descended over him.

The Jeep rumbled toward the far end of the clearing, lurching over tree roots and rocks. Then the two flatbed trucks came out into the open at last. In the back of each truck, about half a dozen men sat on top of the heavy tarps that covered the shipment they guarded. Each man held an AK-47—assault rifles not to be underestimated.

One out of nine of the nine hundred million firearms in existence was some kind of a Kalashnikov, and for a good reason. But a weapon was only as good as the man wielding it, and Walker was damned sure he’d had better weapons training than any of the jerkwads he’d be facing today.

They’d be sweaty and tired, having spent the last four days in the back of the trucks. Their legs would be stiff from all the sitting, their minds at their least alert during the journey. They were almost at their destination.

They had made it through the border. At this point, they’d expect to be in the clear. They’d expect that tonight each would be drinking cold beer at a cantina, then going to sleep in a real bed with a lively whore who’d work the kinks out of his muscles.

If they were thinking of anything, they were thinking of that, and not what dangers the jungle could still be hiding around them.

Walker scanned them carefully, one by one. According to what scant information he had, the noseless man usually covered his face with a bandana. Several of the men had sweat-soaked, twisted bandanas around their necks, but none had his face covered. And they all had their noses, as far as Walker could tell from his cover.

He swallowed his disappointment and anger as the Jeep in the lead rolled forward.

Three, two, one… Walker counted silently. Then the front bumper hit the trip line.


The ground shook as the vehicle blasted up into the air in a fiery explosion, crashing back down a second later and shaking the ground again.

The two trucks lurched to a stop, armed men jumping from the cabs, shouting, shooting randomly at nothing, keeping in the cover of the doors, while the rest bailed from the back, dropping to the ground, pulling behind and under the vehicles.

Walker sprayed them with bullets, dropped and rolled, then rolled some more, his path carefully planned and calculated, so as the men returned fire, they hit nothing but trees. Five down. He shot, rolled again. Nine down. He shot and rolled, over and over.

Two men—realizing that they were trapped in the clearing—jumped back inside the first truck and rammed the burning Jeep, desperate to get away. Metal screamed against metal.

Walker shot them through the truck’s windshield, shards of glass flying, blood spraying the cab. When the second truck tried to back down the jungle road, Walker drilled a bullet into the middle of the driver’s forehead.

The handful of remaining men scattered, scampering behind bushes, running away into the trees.

Walker dashed after them.

He didn’t enjoy killing, but he didn’t dread it either. He spent the next couple of hours tracking and hunting the cartel soldiers down one by one, until the last bastard was dead at his feet in a bleeding heap.

E. effing K. I. A. Enemy Killed In Action.

Walker headed back to the clearing, scratched to shit and covered in blood, but nothing life threatening. The worst damage was his busted cell phone—smashed into pieces in the side pocket of his cargo pants when he’d crashed into a rock. He shouldn’t have brought the damn thing. No reception in the jungle anyway.

He thought no more of the men. His focus was on where he stepped. The scorpion was enough for the morning; he didn’t want an encounter with a poisonous snake. He walked with an even stride, no emotion about the massacre, no guilt.

He didn’t replay the ambush in his mind, didn’t analyze it, didn’t celebrate the win, didn’t regret the loss of life. He simply gave no further thought to the attack he’d carried out. He moved on to the next task.

He dumped the bodies from the cab of the first truck and lined the vehicle up for the pulley system he had hidden high in the canopy. Once he had the truck in position, he pulled back the tarp, lowered the pulley from the tree, hooked it up to the pallet that held over two hundred pounds of raw heroin in plastic bags, then he ratcheted the entire pallet up and out of sight.

He moved to the second pallet and hoisted that, then the third, then the fourth. He did the same with the four pallets on the other truck, working until the entire shipment was hidden in the rainforest canopy high above.

Every muscle in his body burned, sweat dripping from his eyebrows, by the time he strode back to his hiding spot behind the achiote bushes where he’d spent the night. He grabbed the sombrero, shot a few rounds through the black felt with his SIG, then carried the hat back to the clearing, and wiped his bloody hands on the brim before he dropped it.

He went in search of the convoy leader next. The man had been in the Jeep, had been thrown clear in the explosion. Walker had noted earlier the spot where the guy had fallen, and now hurried straight to the mangled body.

He reached into the bulging breast pocket on the guy’s camo shirt and pulled out the roll of hundred-dollar bills held together with a rubber band. Around fifty banknotes, five thousand dollars of bribe money, just in case the convoy bumped into some kind of law enforcement that hadn’t been paid off in advance.

Walker shoved the roll into an empty side pocket of his cargo pants, then checked the rest of the men for their loose bills and pocket change. Leaving the money to rot would be a waste. He checked the faces too, carefully, but every one of the fuckers had a nose. He swore under his breath.

Then he found something he hadn’t been looking for, in the footwell of the second truck: a woven palm leaf basket, about two feet wide and a foot tall, lid fastened on with black electrical tape. Probably snakes—either headed for the exotic animal trade or some voodoo doctor somewhere. He hated snakes, dammit.

Slowly, carefully, he used his knife to cut the tape, then he wedged the blade under the top of the basket and raised it an inch, then another until he could peer in. He saw green, with dots of yellow here and there—feathers. He released the breath he’d been holding.

He dropped the lid back on, then lifted the basket out of the truck. One of the men had been smuggling parrots as a side business. At a couple of hundred dollars each, the nearly two dozen birds jammed into the basket meant a veritable fortune around here.

“Let’s liquidate some assets.” Walker tossed the lid aside.

The birds—yellow-naped Amazon parrots—were too stunned for a moment, blinking at the bright light and him. Then the bravest hopped up to the basket’s edge and took flight with a wild cry, his wings brushing Walker’s face. And the next second, the basket was empty.

Or nearly so. Among the bird droppings and lost feathers on the bottom, a baby parrot blinked curiously at him. The chick was flightless, would probably be flightless for another couple of weeks, judging by the length of its tail and wing feathers.

Walker thought of the small-animal sanctuary at the edge of the jungle, run by an elderly do-gooder British couple. What the hell. He scooped up the parrot and put it into his left breast pocket where the chick immediately snuggled in as if into a nest.

The tiny bird felt warm and alive there—almost as if Walker had a heart again.

“You shit in my pocket and our friendship is over,” he grumbled to the chick as he moved forward.

A deadly silence filled the air. The explosion and following gunfire had scared the wildlife away. Even the bugs kept quiet. The scene around him that had been the picture of paradise not long ago was now a snapshot straight from hell, corpses littering the clearing.

He’d annihilated the enemy, while all he had were scratches. He was the indisputable winner of the battle. Yet, if he felt anything, it was bitter disappointment underscored by the cold, dark anger that lived in his bones and never went away.

Where in hell was the noseless man?

The guy had been there when Walker’s brother had been killed. Which meant the bastard would know Ben’s killer. Walker wanted a name.

But he wasn’t going to get it here today.

He swore as he turned onto an animal track and walked away without looking back. He didn’t much care what would happen to the bodies he left in his wake.

Back when he’d been in the navy, he used to believe in valor and honor and all that bullshit. Now he just believed in being better armed and better prepared than the men he planned on killing.

The list was long. He’d barely gotten started. He had a lot to do—including finding the noseless man—and only a week to do it.

Chapter Two

Mexico City, Mexico

The men loading the coffin into the back of the hearse in the US embassy’s courtyard took their time and handled it with care. Sweat beaded on their foreheads, ran down their cheeks, but they didn’t rush. Even as the July sun radiated brutal heat from above, they kept every move careful and dignified, as befitted the occasion.

DOD Investigator Clara Roberts watched the scene through the open door of the embassy’s back hallway, looking past the marine corporal who stood in the opening.

“Anybody you know?” she asked the marine, keeping her voice down.

Behind her, her retrieval target was dozing in a chair, the flaxen-haired college freshman’s legs sprawled halfway across the corridor, drool gathering at the corner of his lips. Bobby Lekker looked beat, but was otherwise in pretty good shape, all things considered.

At least he wasn’t going to the airport in a hearse.

The marine corporal’s somber gaze swung to Clara. “No, ma’am.”

He was about to turn back, but then he paused and added, “Repatriation of remains. A tourist. He died in a Jet Ski incident while on vacation. Third repatriation this week. The other two were car accidents. Flown back to the States the day before yesterday. Rough summer so far this year. We don’t normally see this many bodies.”

The marine stood ramrod straight as he spoke, shoes at top shine, uniform in impeccable order, his hair regulation cut. He was as exact as if he’d been drawn by a mechanical engineer, with the help of a caliper and a bow compass.

Clara fully approved. She liked order and orderly people. He was the exact type of man she would be attracted to if she had time to be attracted to a man. He looked clean-cut and dependable. Someday…

She stifled a sigh. She had a lot of other things to take care of before she could focus on her personal life. Romance was not on her twelve-month schedule.

Not that she had her entire life mapped out in a spreadsheet. But she did have one-year, five-year, and ten-year plans, both for her private life and her career. She liked knowing where she was going and when and how she was going to get there. The very idea of people meandering through life gave her the heebie-jeebies.

She turned her attention from the marine back to the coffin that would probably be on her flight. The thought didn’t bother her. She’d done repatriations herself. While her job was search and rescue, there had been times when she’d reached her target too late and could only fly back with a body.

The remains of US citizens who died abroad were repatriated via the various US embassies, a streamlined procedure that took the grief of their families into consideration. The deceased were afforded all respect and dignity. The staff wasn’t just shipping boxes. The embassies had a system in place, and the people who ran it cared.

As Clara watched, the men closed the back door of the hearse and the car rolled away.

Within another minute, a black SUV pulled up with tinted windows, the Great Seal of the United States emblazoned on the front door in gold—a majestic eagle holding arrows in his talons on one side, an olive branch on the other.

The marine reached for her suitcase. “I’ll take that, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Corporal.”

She couldn’t wait to get back home. Tomorrow was her father’s first chemotherapy treatment, and she planned on being there with him. She wished she could do more, like donate a kidney or bone marrow, anything. There was absolutely nothing on this earth she wouldn’t do for her father. But she couldn’t do anything about prostate cancer.

Clara and the lost-and-found college student, who had disappeared in Acapulco on a birthday trip with friends, would get a marine escort to the airport. Then she would hand-deliver the delinquent frat boy, in exactly six hours and seventeen minutes, to his worried parents, who’d be waiting at Reagan National Airport in DC.

Clara had her schedule mapped out for the rest of the day, and she planned on sticking to it: hand over Bobby, then go home to her condo to drop off her luggage, shower and change. After that, she’d drive to her parents’ house to spend the night. She wanted to drive her father to the hospital in the morning.

She needed to get the schedule of his future appointments so she could go with him as many times as possible. She could take a leave of absence from work, if necessary. She liked her job—the investigations let her use her analytical skills, took her to interesting places, and she got to save people—but family would always come first.

As the marine stepped outside with her suitcase, Clara called back to the sleeping kid. “Time to go home.”

Bobby Lekker blinked awake slowly and stared at her for a long moment before he pushed to his feet.

He’d cleaned up using the embassy’s facilities, but the shadows of the three weeks he’d spent in a Mexican jail were still in his eyes as he lumbered toward her. He wore the jeans and T-shirt Clara bought him—nothing special, but he’d been ridiculously grateful.

“Thank you,” he said again, his sleep-laden voice filled with emotion. “I’m sorry I caused so much trouble.” He hung his head. “My dad’s gonna kill me.”

She gave him a reassuring smile. “Your parents are going to be extremely happy to see you. I promise.”

She was about to say more, but the clip-clop of high heels behind her made her turn. One of the embassy secretaries hurried toward them, a young woman in a sharp black suit and matching heels. “Miss Roberts? You have a call, ma’am.”

All of Clara’s good feelings evaporated in an instant, startled right out of her. God, don’t let it be bad news. Not something about her father. He didn’t have another doctor’s appointment today, did he?

She called to the marine who was halfway to the car. “I’ll be right back.”

Then she hurried off after the secretary, who was already heading back into the maze of hallways that led to the administrative offices of the embassy.

Clara’s heart beat faster. “Who is it?”

But as she hurried down the hallway, her hand knocked against the cell phone in her pocket, and she knew a sudden moment of overwhelming relief. Her father—or her mother—wouldn’t call her at the US embassy in Mexico City. They would call her on her cell.

She slowed for a beat, relaxing her jaw. Then, with her next thought, her muscles tightened again. Why would anyone call her here? She cast a questioning look at the secretary, who still hadn’t told her who wanted to talk to her.

The woman waited until they were out of hearing distance from the corporal and Bobby, and even then, she kept her voice so low, Clara had to strain her ears to hear her. “The Department of Defense is on the line for you in the bubble room, ma’am.”

Clara blinked.

She’d sent in a case update last night so Bobby’s parents could be immediately notified that he’d been found. Why would her boss, Karin Kovacs, call her? Bobby Lekker’s case was straightforward. Clara had pulled off her target recovery without a hitch. She’d located and retrieved the kid within forty-eight hours of her arrival to Mexico.

All that time, his parents had been worried that their son had been kidnapped or worse, Bobby had been sitting in a small village jail for dancing down the street naked. The local police had misspelled his name, so when the first searches were run, he hadn’t come up in the system.

The secretary turned down the corridor. “This way, ma’am.”

They reached the small windowless room, the walls foot-thick metal to keep anyone from listening in. Most embassies had a microphone-proof “bubble room” where top-secret conversations could be conducted without being compromised, but Clara had never been inside one. Her job didn’t involve any state secrets.

She tried not to gawk too much as she glanced around. A round table stood in the middle of the room. An old-fashioned desk phone waited on the desk, with a single blinking red light.

As the secretary walked away, Clara stepped inside and closed the door behind her. The space was small, the ceiling low, leaving her feeling vaguely claustrophobic. Before she could start thinking about what would happen if the door locked on her, she picked up the receiver and pushed the button next to the blinking light. “Clara Roberts.”

“I’ll be connecting General Roberts, ma’am,” a friendly voice said on the other end. “Please hold for a moment.”

Then the general’s deep voice came on the line. “Clara?”

Alarm shot through her as she gripped the phone. “Are you okay, Dad?”

Her father was a retired general, the head of the Civilian Personnel Recovery Unit, a new, experimental department at the DOD where Clara worked. Not through nepotism. She’d been recruited independently, recommended for the position by her supervisor in her previous job at the FBI, long before it was known that General Roberts would be leading the department.

“I’m fine, honey,” he said.

“Is it Grandma Lucy?” Her eighty-year-old grandmother, her father’s mother, lived at an Alzheimer’s facility.

“She’s doing well. I talked to her this morning,” her father told her, but then he hesitated, which was very much out of character and did nothing to dispel Clara’s alarm, especially when he added, “I need your help.”

“I was just about to leave for the airport. I’ll be home in a couple of hours. I can head straight over instead of going to the condo first.”

Was something wrong with her mother?

Before she could ask, he said, again, his tone hesitant and…something else. “Someone I know disappeared in Mexico recently.”

Clara waited for more. Finding and retrieving US citizens missing abroad was what her unit, Civilian Personnel Recovery, did. But this was not how cases were assigned. Case assignments came from her boss, Karin Kovacs, accompanied by the case file and a brief strategy meeting at the office.

The general was the big boss, because the new department needed someone with status, someone the rest of the DOD wouldn’t just roll over, someone who could negotiate with the higher powers as needed. So General Roberts handled that, while Karin ran the day-to-day operations of the department and managed the investigators.

CPRU investigators worked on one case at a time. Technically, they couldn’t take on a new case until Karin signed off on the previous case, until all the paperwork was completed and all the reports filed.

Bureaucracy was an indelible part of any government work. Rules, rules, and more rules. Which suited Clara pretty well. She was a rules and regulations kind of girl, probably because she’d grown up as a military brat.

Life was much easier when you knew what was expected and had the ability to perform to those expectations. Rules made life dependable.

“Someone else from the embassy can escort your current recovery target back to DC,” her father was saying, his voice still off. “I’ll make the arrangements.” He paused, and in that brief gap, she identified the odd emotion in his tone: misery. “I’d like for you to stay where you are, if possible.”

Her brain scrambled to work out what was going on. “Will you be sending me the case file here?”

“No case file. It’s a personal matter. What I’m about to tell you is strictly confidential.”

From our own department?

Before Clara’s brain could catch up, her father went on with, “The recovery target is Rosita Ruiz. Last seen on July first in Furino, in the state of Chiapas. Long black hair, black eyes, five foot four inches tall, about a hundred and ten pounds. She has family in Furino that she was going to spend the summer with, a cousin, Melena Ruiz.”

Her father rattled off a street name and number.

Clara committed the information to memory, then asked, “Age?”

He hesitated once again before he said, “Eighteen.” He paused. “Nearly.”

Clara stared at the desk with a cold feeling spreading in her stomach. Why are we talking about this in the bubble room? Why is this an off-the-record case? “May I ask how you’re connected to the search target? It might help the investigation.”

Maybe it had something to do with the military. Military secrets. Espionage? Why wasn’t the CIA investigating?

A personal matter, he’d said.

She clenched her teeth. Her father was her hero. She didn’t want to hear what she feared she was about to hear. She stared at the phone, at the rows of buttons, wishing for one that stopped time right then and there.

She did receive a small reprieve. For several long moments, silence stretched on the line. Then her father took a deep breath on the other end.

“I’ve done something incredibly stupid.” Undisguised despair underscored his last words. “I’m sorry, Clara.”

Her heart sank. The bottom of her world fell out. She felt like that astronaut in the last movie they’d seen together, her cord from the spaceship snapped, spinning alone in space.

“How?” If this was true, then everything she’d believed in so far had been a lie, and she had trouble comprehending that. “I have a right to know.”

“I’m sorry,” More miserable silence. Then, “The day the doctor told me the cancer came back. Your mother had that benefit gala at the Ritz. She’s the committee chair, and she was receiving an award, had to go. I was going to go with her, but she told me to stay home and rest.”

Clara tried to remember, but her mother chaired a number of committees and received awards regularly for her charitable works, most having to do with veterans and children of veterans.

“The diagnosis caught me off guard,” her father was saying. “We were both reeling. We were going to tell you in the morning. After she left for the gala, I decided to sit by the pool. I suppose I was having myself a pity party. I had a couple of beers.”

Because he wouldn’t want his wife to see him upset. He’d want to be strong for her to the end. So he used what little alone time he had to let his fears and disappointments out. Clara wasn’t going to blame him for that. But anything else…

“It was Friday night,” he said. “Juanita had been there to clean earlier in the day. A young lady showed up, saying she was Juanita’s niece. She said she’d been helping her aunt and left her school bag in the laundry room. She needed her books to do homework over the weekend. I let her in.”

Clara stared at the empty wall. She knew Juanita, her parents’ new housekeeper. “Rosita Ruiz is Juanita’s niece?”

“I’m not going to say that I was too drunk to know what was happening. You deserve more than excuses.”

Damn right. Hot, blind anger swirled through her, an emotional tornado that left devastation in its wake. How could he betray his wife and daughter like that?

“I don’t remember much,” he said. “I’m sorry. That sounds like an excuse too.”

But Clara clamped onto it. She could have sworn on her life that her father wasn’t capable of something like this. “Maybe nothing happened. Did she say something happened? She could be lying.”

But he said, his voice dejected, “Apparently, I took pictures with my phone.”

Her heart broke then and there, because that certainly rang true.

Her father snapped pictures of everything. Photography was his only hobby. He had a shelf full of expensive cameras and, in addition, he always had whatever latest phone took the best pictures. Clara used to joke that they were the most documented family in the world.

But she was far from a joking mood at the moment. She was numb. Then a new terrible thought wedged itself among the other terrible thoughts that were already circling in her mind, and shock pushed the words from her mouth before she had a chance to reconsider.

“Have you done anything like this before? With other women?”

“No.” He sounded pained. “Never.”

“How can I believe you?” she whispered, her heart breaking a little more.

She closed her eyes for a moment. She didn’t want to hear excuses. And maybe he knew, because he didn’t give her any.

She swallowed. She couldn’t deal with the revelation, not right now. So she focused on the assignment she was being given. A seventeen-year-old had disappeared. Clara had to treat this as any other assignment.

Except that she hated the recovery target with a hot, burning passion.

“I’ll do my best to find her.”

“Juanita is really worried,” her father said. “Her niece told her what happened between us but made it sound as if we had some whole twisted relationship. Juanita has come to me to beg me to find the girl. If I don’t, I’m afraid she’ll go to your mother.”

Clara clenched her jaw. Something like this would kill her mother. Meredith Roberts was madly in love with her husband. She would be crushed beyond recovery. She hadn’t dealt well with the cancer coming back.

She’d been worrying so much, she made herself sick, and she had a weak heart to begin with, the result of some exotic virus she’d caught when Clara’s father had been stationed in Africa at the beginning of his military career, years before Clara’s birth.

To have a much-wanted child, her mother had risked pregnancy and labor, even knowing the stress on her heart might kill her. She’d survived, but she had a delicate constitution ever since Clara could remember, which never stopped Meredith Roberts from championing every cause and trying to save the world.

Her husband admired her deeply and loved her endlessly. He would have given his life for his wife at a moment’s notice—for his wife or his daughter. Clara had never doubted that for a second. This whole Rosita situation was a non sequitur. Someone else’s life.

Suddenly, Clara lost her grip on who her father was, felt as if she no longer knew him. But if she knew one thing, it was that she was going to protect her mother.

“I’ll find the girl,” she heard herself say. Think of it as nothing more than your next case. Forget the personal connection.

Then her father was talking, but, her brain a beehive, Clara missed most of it. “Sir?”

Just in that moment, she couldn’t call him dad.

She normally called him sir in work situations.

His office wasn’t on the same level as Clara’s. She reported to Karin Kovacs and not him. Clara and her father had little interaction at work, which they’d always kept professional, both wanting to avoid even the shadow of any favoritism in the workplace.

He repeated the information now, giving her the rest of the details of the case.

She blinked hard, then looked up at the low metal ceiling and kept blinking so she wouldn’t cry. She couldn’t go back to Bobby Lekker and the marine corporal with tears in her eyes. I’m a professional. Deep breath. I can and will handle this with full professionalism.

Her father finished the briefing with, “You will not be filing an official report.”

She cleared her throat. “No, sir.”

“You report straight to me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Time is of the utmost importance. Two weeks have passed already since the disappearance. Juanita didn’t find out until Rosita missed their weekly phone call. Then she waited for progress from the local police for another week before giving up and coming to me.”

“Who will be my in-house connection?”

Clara would need research done, not to mention remote access to various law enforcement databases. And the state of Chiapas was several hundred miles to the south of Mexico City. She would need plane tickets, rental car, lodging—travel arrangements usually made by the office manager, Elaine Fisher. Elaine, at the very least, would definitely have to be involved.

But her father said, “No in-house connection. I am wiring you funds personally.”

She swallowed. No in-house assistance. Which was completely against the rules. Then again, none of this made any sense.

“Okay. As far as the department is concerned, I’ve caught a nasty virus and I’m in a local hospital, hooked up to IV. I need rest, so I won’t be checking in with work. It’d be best if I didn’t talk to anyone until the mission is completed.”

“Thank you.” The general’s voice was filled with emotion. He cleared his throat. “I arranged for a local facilitator in Furino. His name is Light Walker. Don’t do anything until you talk to him. He said he can meet you at the village guesthouse around Thursday.”


Okay. Doable. “Is he with the local police?”

“The local police are not to be trusted. You’ll need to fly under their radar.”

“Yes, sir.”

So the facilitator was a civilian. Her department normally worked with whoever the local investigator was on the given case, usually the local cops. Unless the local cops were completely corrupt. “Walker will help you with whatever you need,” her father said. “He’ll take you around and make sure you’ll safely get where you need to go.”

Sounded like a local travel guide to make up for her not having office backup on this case—a substitute Elaine.

Silence stretched on the line. Her father had finished with the instructions and was probably unsure about what to say next. To have him be unsure about anything was beyond surreal. Clara felt as if he was a different person suddenly, a stranger she no longer recognized.

She drew a ragged breath. “Don’t tell Mom.”

All her life, when everything had always been in upheaval—the dozens of houses they’d lived in, the countless schools she’d attended, the revolving door of friends—the one constant had been the living, breathing love that filled her family.

Her parents loved her and each other. And she loved them. One maybe a little more than the other. She loved her mother too, but from the first moment Clara could remember, her father had been her knight in shining armor, the hero in the uniform she respected who made her feel safe. As far as she’d been concerned, he could do no wrong.

Until now.

Suddenly she was so angry, she was choking on it. She hated him at this moment, and she felt guilty for the emotion, then even angrier at him for having to feel guilty. Because she couldn’t hate him. Because he was dying.

Prostate cancer was one of the most curable cancers. Most men recovered. But not all. Her father’s cancer was back, and this time, the diagnosis was dire. He’d been given six months, with chemo and radiation. That alone was so incredibly unfair it made her want to scream.

And now this.

He’d served in five wars and earned countless medals. But if the indiscretion came out, his reputation would be forever tarnished. The moral failure was all everyone was going to remember him for. This was how her mother would have to remember him.

“I’m not asking for your help for myself,” he said.

She blinked at the phone.

She’d been focused on her mother and herself, but suddenly she saw the wider implications. The Civilian Personnel Recovery Unit only existed because of General Roberts. If his involvement with Rosita got out and caused a scandal… If the general had to resign, Civilian Personnel Recovery could be disassembled as quickly as it had been created.

He’d been looking for a replacement since the day he’d found out he only had six months to live, but he didn’t have anyone selected yet, just a loose list of possible candidates.

Plenty of higher-ups at the DOD questioned the need for CPRU’s existence. The army had Personnel Recovery for military members and Department of Defense contractors who went missing abroad, but those were people the government had sent into harm’s way, and their recovery came out of the army’s budget.

The argument had been made, over and over, that US civilians who went missing abroad had taken their chances going there in the first place. Why should taxpayers be responsible for helping people out of trouble they had gotten themselves into? If they couldn’t take care of themselves, they should have stayed home.

Of course, the counterargument was that, A: the United States government should provide protection to its citizens regardless of location, and B: kidnapped citizens could be used as leverage by terrorist organizations, so the problem was really a matter of national security.

Clara silently ran through what little information she had on the case, as her father said, “The DEA has an office near Furino, in Mercita. If you run into trouble or find that Rosita’s disappearance is somehow drug related, you’ll find help there.”

US law enforcement nearby was a comforting thought. The Drug Enforcement Agency worked with the Mexican government in the war against drugs as close allies. They had several offices in Mexico, but still…

“I’d rather not reach out to official US channels.”

“Your safety is more important than my reputation,” her father said firmly, then cleared his throat. “First step is to find out whether the girl is still alive. If she is, we need to see if the situation can be solved by something as simple as a transfer of funds. If the case is more complicated than that, we’ll come up with a strategy at that point. You are an investigator, not a SWAT team. I want you to observe all precautions.”

“I will.”

She wanted to say a lot more, but swallowed it all back because none of it would have been particularly helpful.

Silence stretched between them.

“I’m sorry,” her father told her again.

But Clara couldn’t give him absolution.

All she could give was a promise. “I’ll find her.”

She clenched her jaw and put the receiver back in its cradle, because she couldn’t say what she’d always said: Good-bye. I love you, Dad.

Her eyes burning, she walked to the heavy door, opened it, then hurried back to let Bobby Lekker know about the change of plans. She didn’t have much time. She needed to get going. The sooner this whole horrible incident was behind her, the better.

She had to find Rosita. Whatever Clara had to do, she could not fail. 

Chapter Three

Town of Furino, Chiapas State, Mexico, 4 days later

Clara doubted she’d make it halfway to the door, if the men caught her spying.

The dim, one-room cantina ten miles from Mexico’s southern border reeked of booze, smoke, and sweat, the haphazardly arranged tables and chairs—none of which matched—the very picture of chaos. The scene was an affront to Clara’s senses as she sat in the darkest corner. The place made her scalp itch.

Three freaking days wasted.

But no matter what it took, she was going to make progress today.

She’d snuck into the cantina during a loud argument—every man on his feet, gesturing wildly and waving weapons. Her dark baseball hat pulled over her face, she’d skirted the wall and hurried to the farthest table in the back. Since then, she’d been doing her best to stay invisible so she might overhear something resembling a lead.

Her cases tended to progress smoothly from point A to point B and beyond. Not this one. She’d been waiting for Walker since Wednesday night, renting a room at the dilapidated, rooster-infested guesthouse across the road.

At least the cantina was chicken-free. Mostly woman-free too. Dressed for undercover work in a plain T-shirt, faded jeans, and a pair of well-broken-in cowboy boots, Clara was hoping anyone who wasn’t looking too hard would mistake her for a boy.

Where in hell was her facilitator?

How could her father hook her up with someone so unreliable?

Clara hadn’t talked to the general since the embassy. She tried to keep her feelings bottled up on the subject. But she’d called her mother to ask how her father’s first chemo treatment had gone, and to tell her that she loved her. At one point, she would have to deal with her father’s mess, but she was determined to find Rosita first. She wanted to hear straight from the girl what had happened.

As she kept scanning the room, her gaze snagged on the largest of the men. The others called him El Capitán. He could have walked straight out of an old Western: ammo belts crisscrossing his round belly, silver pistols by his sides in silver-studded holsters, black boots, black pants, black shirt, black sombrero—all embroidered with silver thread.

His greasy mustache hung to his double chin, bracketing a cruel, fleshy mouth. Clara strained to hear—without appearing to listen—what he was saying.

The captain sat about fifteen feet from her, four empty tables between them. She could only see him in profile, but then, as if sensing someone watching him, he swung his head toward her. His beady brown eyes fastened on Clara. He stilled for a moment before flashing a yellow-toothed grin.

“Gringa! When did you come in?” he shouted over in heavily accented English. “Come here. Let Pedro look at you.”

Clara bit back a groan. So much for her disguise of a boy. All eyes were on her suddenly, narrowed, disapproving gazes, and more than a few predatory leers.

“Come on, gringa. I don’t bite.” The captain’s lips stretched into a toothy, suggestive smile. He winked. “And when I do, you’ll like it.”

She’d seen the captain before from her window at the guesthouse, always with at least a dozen well-armed thugs around him, people scampering out of his way on the street. If she had to make a guess, she’d guess he was the baddest bad guy in Furino.

She must have hesitated too long, because he pushed heavily to his feet and walked toward her, his boots shaking the rough-hewn wood floor with each step.

His smile didn’t reach his eyes as he stopped in front of her table. “What brings you to Furino?”

“Writing a book about the Mayan sites.” She reached down behind the cover of the table as if to scratch her leg in a nervous gesture, pulled her Glock from her cowboy boot, and lay the gun on her lap.

Bringing a weapon into the country, even a pocket knife, was illegal, but her father had arranged for a small Glock through the marines at the US Consulate in Merida, along with a temporary embassy ID that would grant her diplomatic immunity if she was caught with the firearm.

She didn’t want to use the gun. She was to avoid doing anything that would bring her to the attention of local law enforcement. Hopefully, she wouldn’t have to shoot. She had a fair idea that this was just a pissing contest, Pedro exerting his dominance.

The man reached for her. He didn’t waste time on asking; he went straight to taking what he wanted. “You give Pedro a kiss, and I buy you a drink.”

He wiggled his moustache, his fat fingers closing around her arm and biting into her skin as he roughly yanked her to her feet.

But by the time they were chest to chest, she had her gun at his double chin.

Something dark and dangerous stirred in his eyes as he stilled, a cold and calculating expression hardening his features.

She’d underestimated how high his blood Neanderthal level was. She saw death on his face as clearly as if the words judge, jury, and executioner were tattooed on his pockmarked skin.

Should have let him kiss me.

Instead, she had initiated a deadly confrontation. Back down. Turn it around. They stood in the darkest corner, his large body blocking sight of her and her gun from his men. He hadn’t lost face. He could still let this go. They could still have a laugh over the misunderstanding. He could decide he liked her for being spunky.

She plastered a smile on her face and opened her mouth to diffuse the situation, but the back door banged open and a scrawny kid burst in, yelling for Pedro, then yelling something else in Spanish so rapidly Clara had no hope of comprehending a word.

Pedro dropped his hand from her arm. “You wait here until I come back.”

If doom had a voice, she’d just heard it.

But as Pedro walked out, Clara sat back down instead of running. He could find her anywhere in town. She couldn’t exactly blend in and disappear in a place the size of Furino.

And she wasn’t going to run, in any case. She had come here to retrieve a disappeared person. She was going to take Rosita home. Then she was going to let her father handle the rest however he wanted to handle it. At that point, her job would be to stand by her mother.

She pushed those thoughts aside and refocused on the cantina. She needed to keep in investigator mode. Don’t think about the personal connection.

From what she’d overheard so far, Pedro was Furino’s “godfather.” Clara doubted much went on in town he wasn’t involved in or didn’t give his permission to at least.

Now she just had to establish some kind of rapport with the guy and get him talking. She slipped her gun back into her boot. Let’s not remind El Capitán of that little misstep, shall we?

She waved over the waitress the men called Margarita. “Could I have a bottle of tequila with two clean glasses, please?”

The order would take most of the pesos she’d stuffed into her pocket before coming over, but she needed something to break the ice with El Capitán.

The waitress cast Clara a baleful look. The women who served the men at the cantina also took the time to sit on the men’s laps and fondle them, and periodically take a customer in the back. Maybe Margarita thought Clara would be competition.

But after a glance at the swarthy bartender, who gave a barely perceptible nod, the waitress said, “Sí, señorita.”

In Mexico, most cantinas didn’t allow women unless they were prostitutes. But since El Capitán had said he’d be back for her, Clara was safe from removal for the moment.

As Margarita sashayed her petite but voluptuous figure back to the bar, Clara made no comparisons between the waitress’s exotic feminine allure and her own tall, flat body. Nobody would ever call her a sensuous beauty. She dealt with it. She had other admirable qualities.

When Margarita brought her order, Clara cleaned the glasses on her T-shirt, then lined them up neatly with the bottle.

She scanned the room again. Her facilitator could advise her on the local criminal element. She resisted grinding her teeth.

She’d gone to work at Civilian Personnel Recovery specifically because the missions were lone-wolf operations. She did not, as a rule, work with a partner. And she most certainly did not work with partners who made appointments around Thursday.

The amount of time she’d wasted waiting for that idiot…

At least she’d talked to Rosita’s cousin and found out more about the circumstances of the young woman’s disappearance. And she’d gone to the Mayan ruins, plus walked around town to play up her cover as a travel writer, acting like the average American tourist. She’d used the time to get the lay of the land. And she’d made a game of picking out the main local players—none of whom inspired any confidence.

The majority of the town’s shady-looking characters seemed to end up at the cantina at least once a day. Unsavory-character Grand Central. If a crime had been committed in Furino, these were the men who’d had a hand in it.

Most of the banditos sitting around the tables seemed capable of kidnapping. Or straight-out murder. Aggravated murder wasn’t out of the question either.

Her local connection, if he ever showed, should be able to give her some real understanding of the local criminal power structure. She hoped he was good at what he did, even if he was just some hippie who’d come down for the spiritual Mayan sites located around the small town of Furino, then stayed for the tequila and the weed.

She’d run into a few of those already. One Canadian guy ran a bicycle rental; another old hippie from Jersey sold tie-dyed T-shirts with Mayan symbols superimposed over psychedelic swirls.

She expected her facilitator to be a mellowed-out travel agent slash travel guide who could help her with the maze of dirt roads that weren’t on any map and didn’t show up on her GPS. The area had a number of indigenous villages without names, logging camps, and temporary shanty towns where people fleeing South America stopped to rest on their way farther north.

She hoped the guy was on his way instead of permanently delayed somewhere, pushing up agaves. Anything could happen to a man, or a woman, down here.

Clara pulled her baseball hat deep over her face and listened to the resumed conversations around her.

The talk centered on the local armadillo races and Chiapas FC’s chances in an upcoming soccer match at Tuxtla Gutiérrez. The two events seemed to hold equal importance for the patrons.

She looked for patterns: who talked to whom, who deferred to whom, who watched whom with suspicion. In the past hour, she’d identified five distinct groups, each with its own captain, with El Capitán being the overall head honcho.

Drug runners? Gun runners? Human traffickers?

Before she could figure it out, the front door banged open, and she turned that way, still hoping for her travel guide, finding herself staring at a mercenary who looked like he’d just stepped out of one of those high-testosterone video games.

Okay. Wow. Because…wow.

A machete strapped to his back, a semiautomatic slung over his shoulder, a handgun in the side holster, and an army knife on his belt, he walked into the cantina with a swagger that said he could beat any man in town and could take any woman to bed. If he wanted.

He was taller than the locals, his hair a few shades lighter, a couple of days’ worth of bristle covering the lower half of his face. He wore army boots, cargo pants, and a black T-shirt that did nothing to conceal a distracting amount of muscle. White flashed as he chomped on the cigar between his teeth, his eyes covered by sunglasses.

Clara slid down in her chair and backed farther into the shadows as she watched him. So Pedro wasn’t alpha dog of the local pack. This guy was most definitely the top predator in Furino. His body language seemed completely relaxed, yet power emanated from his every pore.

All around, hands surreptitiously migrated to the tops of the tables, as if making sure the newcomer didn’t accidentally misinterpret any move as someone going for a weapon.

The mercenary claimed the empty stool at the far end of the bar. He didn’t ask for a drink. The bartender poured him one anyway. He didn’t so much as crook an eyebrow at a woman. But Margarita went to sit on his lap and rubbed against his well-built chest like a cat. She just about purred.

The waitress’s lustrous mahogany hair tumbled to her waist in waves, curling and swinging all over the place. She looked wild and free. Clara touched a hand to the strict bun tucked under her baseball hat.

The mercenary tossed back his drink with one hand while putting the other one on Margarita’s bare knee, running his palm up her thigh, under her short red skirt. He bent to her neck and nibbled her. Or maybe whispered something into her ear, because Margarita laughed. And then he was laughing too, a throaty sound of pure seduction.

One second, Clara was glaring at them with annoyed disapproval, and the next she suddenly felt her own skin heat, as if the man was touching her, his callused palm running over her naked skin. A long-neglected part of her body tingled, waving a flag. Hey, remember me?

At the bar, Margarita flattened her palms against the muscles of the mercenary’s chest and caressed them, moving lower and lower.

Clara blinked. What the hell was wrong with them? Then she clenched her jaw. What the hell was wrong with her?

It had to be the heat. A dozen fans whirled overhead, swirling the hot, humid air without providing much relief.

The mercenary chatted on with the bartender, as if being publicly fondled was par for the course for him, certainly nothing to remove his sunglasses over.

Appalling. Both his behavior, and that Clara would feel hot and bothered from simply watching the outrageous bastard.

Then he finally slid off his glasses, and the next second his unerring gaze pinned Clara, and it was too late to turn away or slide down in her chair, because he’d caught her watching him.

He gave a knowing smirk as he shooed the waitress off his lap and patted her curvy behind. He never looked at the woman again as he sauntered toward Clara, six feet of pure muscle and laser-focused attention.

The scene should have been the opening shot of an action movie—light glinting off hills of muscles, determination in every masculine move, a cocksure grin. Casting directors all over Hollywood would have peed their pants at the sight of this guy.

He dropped into the chair across from Clara, his muscled thighs spread. She clamped her own thighs together. His white teeth flashed in the dim light of the cantina as he chomped on his cigar and took stock of her.

“Are you lost, Cupcake?” His I’m-a-bad-boy-and-you-know-it voice scraped along her nerve endings. He was definitely American. East Coast, if she had to guess from his accent.

Her grandmother used to say there were men the devil put on earth to test good women. Clara was tempted to ask the guy whether he’d just zip-lined in from hell.

“Go away,” she said instead.

His smile was worth a thousand words, most of them dirty. His voice dipped. “How can I, when your eyes begged me to come over?”

She rolled said eyes so hard, she might have caused permanent damage.

One: she hadn’t begged in her life.

Two: the only thing she wanted was to hit him over the head with the bottle of tequila between them on the table. She was trying to keep a low profile, and he was drawing every eye to them.

He smiled around his cigar. “What’s your name?”

DOD Investigator Clara Roberts, she badly wanted to say to wipe the superior smirk off his face. “None of your business.”

His eyes were a brilliant multicolor green like the rainforest, alive and full of secrets. He let his gaze travel over her chest from left to right, then from right to left with undisguised disappointment.

He tsked. “No tits, no manners.” He shook his head. “You should try to have at least one or the other. A pair of great tits covers a multitude of sins.”

When his gaze reached hers again, the very fires of hell glinting in his eyes, he said magnanimously, “Don’t worry about it, Cupcake. You look like the brainy type. Believe it or not, that appeals to some men. I think I read that on the Internet.” He edged his chair forward until their knees touched under the table.

A tingle ran up her thighs at the contact. She shifted her legs away from his. “Please leave.”

“I can’t. You need me.” He flashed an infuriatingly cocky grin. “Walker.”

A who?

Her mouth dropped open. Light Walker? The hippie travel guide Walker? The one she’d been picturing with long, thinning hair, wearing a tie-dye shirt?

Why on earth would her father send his daughter to a man like this?

Before Clara could figure out what to do with Walker, Pedro stalked back into the cantina. El Capitán was yelling obscenities over his shoulder to whomever he’d been talking to outside. Then the door swung shut behind him, and his gaze swept the room and settled on Clara.

His mouth twisted into a snarl as he strode toward her. “You’re coming with me.” He narrowed his eyes at Walker. “The puta is mine.”

Walker rose in a measured move and stood toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose with the captain, all easy like, displaying none of Pedro’s bustle. The cantina fell silent around them. The hostile looks they exchanged said the two men knew each other, but there was no love lost between them.

Clara wouldn’t have minded knowing what their relationship was exactly.

Pedro’s eyes narrowed another notch. “I don’t have time to argue. Don’t get into the middle of this, gringo.”

Walker hesitated only for a second, then his expression hardened as if he’d come to some sort of decision.

“I’m pressed for time myself,” he said around his cigar and pulled his knife from his belt in a lightning-quick move, shoved the blade into the man’s abdomen, and yanked up hard.

Clara had no time to react other than jumping to her feet. Her gore rose from the wet sound of the blade being pulled back. She stared wide-eyed as the captain grabbed his belly to hold in his guts, a stunned look on his pockmarked face.

And suddenly she could smell the contents of his stomach.

Oh God. She swallowed hard so she wouldn’t gag. She needed to look away, but she couldn’t.

She’d never killed a man. Unlike in action movies, most law enforcement officers never killed in their entire careers. She’d certainly never seen a man disemboweled. Light Walker, on the other hand, hadn’t so much as blinked.

Before she could fully recover, Walker shoved the man onto the nearest chair, then reached across the small table, practically pulled Clara over it as he hauled her against him. He spit out his cigar and slanted his lips over hers in a primal gesture of claiming, his left hand all over her butt, while his right hand wiped then put away the knife and went for the semiautomatic to hold the room at bay.

Her head—and her stomach—were still reeling when his lips pulled away from hers as abruptly as they’d swooped in.

“Chica’s mine for the night. Whoever wants her tomorrow, you work that out amongst yourselves,” he said to the den of thieves in general, then sauntered to the back door without letting go of her. Pedro sat slumped over in the chair, a pool of blood spreading on the floorboards under him. His men rushed to his side. Since the altercation had taken place in the dark corner, they probably hadn’t fully seen what had happened.

And Clara didn’t want to be there when they figured out the particulars. She didn’t protest when Walker pulled her through the back door. Stunned speechless, she followed him.

Her “facilitator” wasn’t a hippy travel guide. He was a stone-cold killer.

The door swung closed at their backs, and Clara squinted into sunshine as Walker dragged her down the rickety wooden steps, his arm a metal band around her middle. The level of noise behind them in the cantina doubled, then tripled, a beehive that had been disturbed. The shock of Pedro’s sudden death was wearing off at last.

“Now what?” she asked, not that she was admitting that Walker was calling the shots. Maybe for the moment. But any second now, she was going to get her act together and take charge.

“Now we run.” Walker let go of her waist, grabbed her wrist, then sprinted forward, crossing the dirt road that was lined by derelict houses on each side, the cantina and the guesthouse the best of the bunch.

He dragged her toward the jungle that began a hundred feet or so behind her guesthouse, and she did her best to keep up, wondering if she could outrun an army of drunken bandits. And whether the bandits were any worse than the man she was running with.

To be completely honest, she wasn’t entirely sure if she was being rescued or kidnapped.

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