Gaylord Texan Resort
“I am Ernesto Vega. I believe you knew my brother.” Two bulky-looking guards stood across the room as a distinguished-looking Hispanic man seated himself across from Nick. His eyes were disturbingly familiar.
Nick’s gut tensed at the introduction, but he didn’t give any outward appearance that the knowledge disturbed him. That Ernesto would risk coming into the country was an indicator of how important this was.
“Yes, I knew Cesar.” Nick gave a small nod as an exotic-looking woman handed him a bottle of mineral water from a refrigerator in the suite’s wet bar.
“You’re surprised I’m here in the U.S., are you not?”
Nick shrugged. “It would seem rather rash given that you’re on the most wanted list for the DEA.”
Ernesto smiled, but the expression didn’t reach his eyes. The men stared at each other in silence.
Nick unscrewed the top on the water. “Are you here to kill me or give me back the woman?”
Ernesto shrugged. “I haven’t decided. Perhaps both. For now, let’s call it a mission of diplomacy.”
Nick raised an eyebrow and looked pointedly at the bodyguards. “If you’re planning to kill me, you’re going to need a hell of a lot more men than you’ve got right now.”
Ernesto sipped his drink. “Oh, I don’t think so. Remember, I have your sister-in-law.”
They still didn’t realize their screw-up. Nick took a swallow of water to cover his relief. “For the time being. We’re here because you kidnapped my brother’s wife. That beats the hell out of any kind of diplomacy I’ve ever seen.”
Ernesto swirled the liquid in his glass. “Tomas Rivera’s wife, Carlita, was my sister. She’s dead. So is my brother, Cesar. I don’t give a shit about diplomacy.”
“I had nothing to do with your sister’s death,” said Nick.
That was true. Ernesto’s sister, Carlita Vega Rivera, had been killed in a violent explosion in November, the day before her brother, Cesar Vega, tried to kill Nick in a back-alley Mexican vet clinic.
But Carlita had been doomed long before the unexplained detonation that destroyed her husband’s home. Having a very rare blood type, she’d been days away from death and in desperate need of a bilateral lung transplant that wasn’t going to come in time.
In hopes of saving Carlita,Tomas Rivera had kidnapped a boy whose mother, Anna Mercado, had the same rare blood type. Leland Hollis, the newest member of AEGIS, had gone in to Mexico to get the boy. Nick had been part of the extraction team.
Getting everyone out was where things had fallen apart.
Ernesto waved his hand impatiently. “You left Tomas Rivera’s compound minutes before it was attacked. I refuse to believe you and your employer had nothing to do with its being destroyed.”
“You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but I had nothing to do with the explosion. Neither did the people I work for.” Nick was telling the truth, even if it could be interpreted to mean he was still working for the CIA as well as AEGIS. But he wasn’t about to explain. Ernesto would never believe he’d quit the CIA anyway. No one believed him when he said he’d quit.
“So you say. But it seems suspicious to me that you were present at both blasts where my sister and brother died.”
“Are you certain another cartel wasn’t responsible? Your brother-in-law, Tomas Rivera, is not without enemies. Not to mention your own enterprises in the area.”
Ernesto’s smile was grim. “I would not order a hit on Tomas’s compound with my sister inside.”
The sister married to Ernesto’s number one competitor, a man to whom he hasn’t spoken in years, Nick thought. But he couldn’t say that if he was trying to keep the peace. “You and I both know that there’s been bad blood between the Vega and Rivera cartels for a while. Ever since your sister’s marriage.”
Ernesto leaned forward, his eyes glittering with anger. “You were seen on the security tapes inside Rivera’s compound, setting up some kind of device moments before the explosion. Can you explain that?”
Nick wanted to ask how Ernesto knew that, but the answer was obvious. Tomas Rivera must have had security camera feeds running to an offsite location. “I never said I wasn’t there at Rivera’s, but I wasn’t setting explosives. I was installing listening devices, trying to find out if Rivera knew anything about Elizabeth Yarborough’s disappearance.”
Ernesto raised an eyebrow. “The young woman doing charity work for your Peace Corps in Mexico? I thought authorities had proven that the boyfriend killed her?”
Nick stifled a sigh. Everyone thought that. Yarborough’s boyfriend was currently in a Mexican prison accused of her murder, but AEGIS had been hired to find out what really happened.
“There is some speculation that she’s not dead and was possibly sold into the sex trade,” said Nick.
“And you thought Tomas Rivera might have information about this unfortunate American’s kidnapping because . . .” Ernesto studied Nick as he asked the question.
Nick didn’t blink. Instead, he shot Vega a grim smile. “You know as well as I do that your brother-in-law has connections to human trafficking throughout Latin America. You and he both do. It seemed as good an opportunity as any to find out if that supposition was true while going in to retrieve our operative and the Mercados.”
“And just what did you find?”
Nick shook his head. “Our bugs weren’t in place long enough to yield any information before they were blown to hell along with the rest of Rivera’s compound.”
“But Rivera survived. Chasing after you at the time, I believe.” Ernesto stood, seeming to debate what he wanted to say next. He walked to the sideboard to refresh his bourbon, but Nick felt no need to fill the silence.
“My sources have confirmed that a drone was used at Rivera’s home and at the clinic. I want to know how that happened,” said Ernesto.
“A private drone?”
Ernesto shrugged, but at the same time his eyes lit with a bitter fire. “I didn’t say if it was government or private. That’s what I’d like to know. Who would do such a thing? Neither myself nor Tomas Rivera has access to drones. But your government does. There is something bigger going on here than a feud between two families. I want you to find out what that ‘something bigger’ is. Someone at AEGIS knows.”
“You have a great deal of faith in my abilities,” said Nick.
“I know what you used to do for the U.S. government, Mr. Donovan. I understand that you were quite good at your job.” Ernesto remained beside the bar and seemed content to let the question of whether Nick still worked for the CIA hang in the air.
“Since Cesar died in an explosion that almost killed you both, I’m assuming it wasn’t your idea to blow the vet clinic. But I’d like to know what is going on, and I’m offering an exchange. I want you to find out who was behind the drone attacks on Tomas Rivera’s home in Heroica Veracruz and on the vet clinic in Antón Lizardo. I believe that will explain who was responsible for the deaths of Carlita and Cesar both. When you tell me that, you may have the woman back.”
Nick’s mind raced. He had no clue who had blown up the Rivera compound or the vet clinic, and he had no intention of investigating those mysteries before locating and extracting Jennifer from wherever Ernesto Vega had taken her. He was certain that AEGIS had had nothing to do with either event, but all bets were off as to his former employers’ involvement or that of any other government agency. Still, he had heard nothing about the incidents being drone attacks. He didn’t believe Gavin Bartholomew, his boss at AEGIS, would have kept something like that from him.
“I’ve always assumed this was some kind of turf war, and I got caught in the cross fire. That was the official word in the debriefing I was privy to.”
Ernesto arched an eyebrow. “How do I know if you’re telling the truth?”
“Why would I lie?”
“Why indeed? Surely you know just as I do that people lie for all kinds of different reasons. It would hardly be prudent when I have your sister-in-law, now would it?”
Nick again felt his insides tighten in apprehension at the mention of the mix-up but kept his expression carefully schooled. Ernesto couldn’t know he held the wrong woman as hostage.
“Or rather I had your sister-in-law,” said Ernesto.
Now Nick’s gut twisted painfully. “What do you mean you had her? Where is she?”
“I gave her to Rivera’s people in Tlaxcala to hold for me.”
Nick’s breath clogged his lungs as he stared at the man.
“Tlaxcala?” The smallest state in Mexico was located in the east-central portion of the country and known for two things: the Sierre Madre Oriental Mountain Range and prostitution.
“Just for a while,” said Ernesto.
The only people in Tlaxcala were sex traffickers. The area was notorious for it. Nick shook his head once as Ernesto continued talking.
“I want you to have sufficient motivation for finding out what really happened to my family. But you needn’t worry about your sister-in-law. Rivera’s people will sedate her to keep her cooperative. It won’t be too traumatic that way. She’ll go back to your brother, if not untouched, at least not traumatized. Rivera’s people are very good at keeping the women comfortable when they arrive to get them through the initial ‘adjustment phase’ of their new lives.”
“Do you mean they’ll just drug her into oblivion so they can fuck her without any resistance?” Nick’s voice remained steady and conversational as he felt the tiny thread on his control stretch and snap. He focused on unclenching his fists and breathing slowly through his nose. Stay calm. “What have you done?”
“I’ve given you incentive to find out what I want to know. After I get my information, I’ll tell you exactly where your sister-in-law is, and you can get her out of harm’s way as quickly as possible.” Ernesto sipped his drink, seemingly unperturbed by Nick’s harsh words. “But don’t take too long. Tomas may find his people have need of her services.”
“You son of a bitch. You mean he’ll put her to work in one of the brothels in the area, don’t you?” White-hot rage raced through Nick’s veins, but his voice remained icy calm, even as the thought of what they were discussing made him slightly ill.
Prostitution rings and black market porn were just the tip of the iceberg. Still, he kept his tone stable and businesslike while he forced himself to keep his hands loosely gripping his bottle of water. “How do I know Rivera hasn’t put her to work already?”
Ernesto shook his head but raised an eyebrow at the same time. “Tomas says he has not, but you never know. That’s why you don’t want to take too long to get me my answers. Don’t worry, I’ll check in on her from time to time.” He shrugged noncommittally and finished his drink.
Nick tried to ignore the threat along with the acid eating at the lining of his stomach and the fear clutching his throat with iron claws. He’d seen the places Ernesto spoke of, and he’d witnessed the methods used. These were places totally devoid of hope, where animals came to spew their rage on women and children . . . on those thought to be expendable.
Tlaxcala was the state name as well as that of the capital city. Covered with brothels, the area’s primary source of income was prostitution. Searching for Jennifer down there would be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, and Tomas Rivera’s people would know Nick was coming. They could move her around in a tortuous shell game for weeks. Nick’s heart rate ticked upward because Ernesto’s assurances of “checking in on her” didn’t mean squat. “Why use me? How do you know I can be trusted?” he asked.
“Because I have the power to keep your sister-in-law out of harm’s way. You want her out alive, Mr. Donovan, because your family is everything to you. I understand that.”
Nick took another sip of the bottled water as Ernesto continued. “My family was everything to me as well. While I can’t have Cesar or Carlita back, I will have justice. And I will have them avenged. I’ll even use you to do it.”
Ernesto moved away from the sideboard, his black gaze never wavering from Nick’s. “Your old contacts and your expertise will come in handy. If you do this right, we can both be heroes. And your sister-in-law can come home safely. But if it all goes to hell, I’m fairly certain you’ll die in the process. So, it’s—how do you say it in the U.S.—a win-win for me.”
“And . . . my brother’s wife?”
Ernesto tilted his head and frowned slightly. “An unfortunate casualty.”
Nick stared back with his neutral game face in play. In the end it wouldn’t have mattered if Jennifer was family, an ex-lover, or a stranger he’d met on the street. He was going after her. Ernesto’s not knowing her true identity might lend him some kind of upper hand later, if she hadn’t already given herself away.
Nick finished his water before he spoke. “Alright. You’ve got your bargain. But if Angela is harmed in any way, the people in Tlaxcala are going down and I’m coming after you.”
“Ah, but you’ll have to find me first.” Ernesto laughed and turned to leave.
“That won’t be a problem.” Nick’s lips curved in a grim parody of the smile Ernesto had given him earlier. “As you’ve heard, I’m very good at what I do.”
Ernesto paused in the doorway. “For your sister-in-law’s sake, I hope so.”
Copyright © 2014 by Kay Thomas. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Want another peek of PERSONAL TARGET?
for Chapter Four - click here
for a “steamy” sneak peek - click here
for Prologue - click here
for Chapter One - click here
for Chapter Two - click here