Villa Montes, Chiapas, Mexico
“A boy.” Sevilla clapped his hands. The smack echoed against the bare adobe dome. “He will be a fine boy.” He beat his boot heels on the marble floor. His black beard bounced against his white tunic. “Ha. Go upstairs, wife. Lie down. Rest.”
“I have plans for the afternoon.” Oleta took a step backward, putting the leather sofa between them. Her large eyes wary. But her middle already showed evidence of his child.
“You will do as I say.” He snapped in her direction and put his back to her. His child would be the heir to his business. His kingdom. He must be strong and healthy. “Go now and take care of my son.”
“He is my son, too.” The woman’s voice cracked. She pressed her back against the wall.
She tested his good humor. His eyes hardened as he shot her a glare. His hands fisted at his side, prepared to take action on her insolence.
But this was supposed to be a joyful time. He relaxed his muscles and applied a measured smile under his black whiskers. “Be careful, Oleta. I cannot guarantee that my gratitude will last too far beyond my son’s birth.”
She stiffened. Good. She should be scared. She’d seen enough to know her fortunate circumstances and to be thankful for them.
Sidestepping out of his study, she scurried up the stairs. Her heels clicking like the little mouse she was. Popping in a hollow manner. The sounds grew louder. She gasped as glass broke, echoing in the entrance of his villa.
“Oleta?” He stepped toward the great hall.
“Señor Sevilla.” Two from his security. Good. He needed answers.
“Go, check on Oleta. Make sure my son is all right.”
Captain Ortega gestured to the other man. “We must get you to safety.”
“Another drill? These are getting tiresome.”
“They prepare your security team to keep you safe, sir.” Ortega ushered him through the thick hallway to his helicopter hangar.
The other man had seen to Oleta. “Make sure my wife comes.”
The captain touched his earpiece and issued the order.
Sevilla climbed aboard the revving bird and looked back.
Ortega grew pale. “We must go.” He climbed aboard.
“Not until Oleta arrives. She is carrying my son. My heir.” His humor returned. A young prince to carry on his legacy.
The angled roof sections lifted.
“Stop. I will not leave without her.”
“We have to go, Señor.” Ortega strapped a belt around Sevilla and shouted at the pilot.
“I will have your head.” Sevilla kicked at the man, willing him to fall out of the gaping side of the transport. No such luck.
Ortega pulled the sliding door closed as they cleared the roof. Pings hit the heavy metal siding.
“What is that? Is something wrong with the rotor?”
The copter lurched forward and accelerated.
“You idiot. You left Oleta back there.”
“I am sorry, sir. Fernandez reported that she was dead when he reached her. Shot on the stairs.”
No. Bile gathered in his mouth. “She carried my son. The coming leader of the Montes Cartel.”
“There is no more Montes Cartel, sir.” Ortega shouted over the pounding of the blades. “There is only you, me, and our pilot.”
“What are you saying?” What about his soldiers? His loyal followers? His faithful ones who would die before injury befell him? “The cartel lives.”
“All of your property is under siege except for the bunker near Asmirandu.” Ortega wiped sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand. “A few men there. And the federales know nothing about the compound.”
“Asmirandu.” Sevilla growled the village name. “His home.”
“He did all of this. His noble report in the face of fear.” The man would pay. “He has no idea what fear looks like.”
“I will kill him myself, Señor.”
“No.” Sevilla tapped his fingertips together. “I want him to worry. And then see everything that he loves destroyed. As he has destroyed everything that is mine.”
“Most of what he loves is in America.”
“Then I will go to America.” He spat out the hated word. “By the time I am finished with Raymond Johnson, he will understand true terror.”
Heath’s Point, Texas
“We’ve lost contact.”
The shout, spurred on by a January gust, flew past Cat McPherson without fully engaging her brain. “You did what?”
Violet Alexander rarely came to the diner at sunset, but Cat’s focus was on the needy people who waited in the treacherous cold for dinner. She stepped off the stoop of Mac’s Diner, handing a boxed meal to a dirty-faced man dressed in clothes much too large for him. “Do you have shelter for tonight?”
“Got him a spot near mine, Miss Cat.” Dash, a regular for as long as Cat could remember, put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I’ll take care of ’em.”
She smiled and handed Dash a meal. The man’s wide smile showed his gratitude. “You such a blessing, Miss Cat. Can’t tell ya how thankful I was to know you’d keep serving meals after your daddy passed.”
Cat’s mouth twitched. She wished Dad were there. Talking about Jesus. Praying over the meal. How could she ever fill his shoes? “Sunset dinners are way too important to let them go.” And she’d do everything in her power to keep the diner profitable, as long as Dad’s silent partner didn’t get in the way, if only to keep serving these dinners.
Rubbing her hands on her blue jeans, she hoped to ignite heat and restore feeling to her fingers. Vi came closer.
Cat paused. Her hand steadied the rolling cart just inside the door. The chilling gale rested a moment. A warm breath from the heater inside caressed Cat’s frigid cheeks. “I’m so sorry, Vi. I couldn’t hear you over the wind.”
She caught a glimpse of Violet’s face. The woman’s puffy, red eyes, a contradiction to her usually flawless makeup, shook Cat from her routine. The rare sight of a not-having-it-all-together Vi shoved the words back through Cat’s brain, this time engaging it. We’ve lost contact.
The nerve endings along Cat’s spine filled with ice. The wind picked up, whipping her curly ponytail into a knotted frizzle. She grasped the edge of her red wool coat as the gale snatched at the hem. Trying to shout over the force of the blast used all her energy, and she struggled to form the single syllable that came out as a broken whisper.
“Ray?” Her heart lurched at the name she hadn’t uttered in months.
Vi bit her bottom lip.
Cat’s breath came in sharp gasps as her eyes locked onto Ray’s mom. “Is he all right?” Surely the message contained more information. Some hope. He had to come back.
But the woman stood silent as tears pooled against the bottom rim of her eyes.
Dash laid a hand on her shoulder. “I can finish handing out these here dinners if you need some time.”
She stared at him for a full second, her thoughts whirling to some wilderness where Ray was trapped, unable to return, or maybe … Shutting her eyes against her worst fears, she nodded. “Thank you.”
“Come inside.” Vi pulled Cat out of the frigid air and into the diner, warmed from hours of grilling. Aromas of stale frying oil mixed with freshly baked chocolate cake failed to offer Cat their usual familiar comfort. Her mind refused to settle on one thought. Like when the doctors told her they could do nothing more for her father.
This couldn’t be happening. Even with Ray’s silence when he left for his mission field, she still dreamed of a future together, the ministry they had spent hours talking about. Was that dream gone forever? Lifting her eyes, she hoped to ask more questions.
Vi lowered into the nearest chair. Her hands folded in her lap. Her gaze somewhere between the edges of the red laminate table.
Oh God, comfort Violet right now.
Cat couldn’t imagine losing Ray, but when Vi looked at him, she saw her baby. Unwilling to allow her angst freedom, she hurried into the kitchen. She had to get control of her emotions. Before she caused Violet even more pain.
Cat grabbed a pair of sodas from the fridge and rejoined Vi. The hollow clomps of her boots on the black and white checkerboard linoleum reverberated in her chest. Empty. Alone.
She pushed the ache aside and set the Dr Pepper in front of Vi. “Have some. You’ll feel better. Or can I get you some of Grady’s leftover cookies?”
“No, no. I’ll be fine.” She tugged a napkin out of the table canister and folded it. Resetting her can on the makeshift coaster, she popped it open.
Cat opened her Diet Pepsi and observed the woman, her eyes still rimmed in red, though wiped dry. Petite with short, highlighted hair and the same chocolate eyes as Ray. If anyone had a right to crumble it was his mother, but Vi stood strong. Coming to offer comfort to Cat instead.
“What is the board doing about it?” Cat wrapped her hands around the can and took a sip, forcing the bubbles down with a loud gulp.
Vi stared at her soda. “They’ve contacted Ray’s ministry partners, but those missionaries live over a hundred miles from his village.”
“Wherever that is.” Cat chided herself immediately for letting her frustration have voice. Especially around Vi.
But the fact that Ray had told her nothing, advancing no trust whatsoever, cut as deeply as his leaving her behind. Almost as deeply. Taking the future they expected to share for himself and leaving without her was a betrayal she could never forget.
But she’d always expected him to return.
“Ray’s journal noted an appointment to preach last Sunday at the little church he helped to build, but he logged in nothing further.”
“Haven’t they contacted the US Embassy? Called the police? Anything?” Surely there were ways to find him. She bounced her right leg.
“Things are different in other countries, Cat. You know that.” She sniffed.
Cat laid her hand across Vi’s. “We’ll find out this is just a mistake. I bet you hear from him tomorrow. He’ll be fine and have a good laugh at the worrywarts back home.”
Sad eyes lifted. “I have learned that some of the surrounding villages have been contacted.” She pulled another napkin from the canister and rubbed her nose.
“So, maybe he went someplace else. Maybe he tried a new place and has yet to update his journal.” Cat could believe that. And Vi needed other options to think about besides …
“Someone from one of the communities responded to the contact.”
Cat glanced at Vi’s reflection in the darkened glass of the storefront. The woman opened her mouth and shut it again. Beyond that virtual mirror, the small group that had huddled outside dispersed with their dinner packages.
“What did they say?” Despite the warmth of the diner, she shivered and jumped as Dash opened the door.
He shoved the cart through, staying well outside the doorframe. “You all right in here?”
She waved at him. “We’re okay. Thank you for your help.”
The old man whose girth didn’t match his nickname stepped back a few steps and waved at Cat through the window.
“Probably as close to being inside a building as Dash has been for some time.”
Vi’s jaw muscle twitched briefly. The corner of her mouth angled downward.
Cat’s attempt to lighten the air failed. “Oh, Vi, you know God is with Ray. You told me yourself how He led him to the mission. Don’t give into fear now.”
Brave words. And she tried to believe them.
Tears brimmed Vi’s lashes again. “There’s word that the mission fell under attack.”
Outside Asmirandu, Chiapas, Mexico
“¡Pégalos!” Get them.
Voices of the hooded attackers chasing Ray Alexander echoed under the canopy of trees. He stumbled over briars and weaved between gnarled trunks. Branches slapped his face as he followed the man who pulled him from a chaos of shouts and gunfire at the small church he helped to build.
Dodging the vine tentacles, he pushed aside the fronds of invading plants along an invisible path. His lungs burned. His shoulder screamed pain. Dislocated? Keep moving. He focused on the man, Miguel, a recent transfer to his mission team. He dared not lose sight of him.
Not here. Especially not now.
Voices somewhere behind him called out again. His own crashing boot steps far overwhelmed the sounds of his pursuers. Had he widened the gap?
Miguel halted then folded his frame into the fronds of a large fern. Huffing, Ray tucked himself behind a giant elephant ear leaf nearby. He struggled to listen over his heaving chest. His blood-stained shirt clung to his limp left arm.
Shouts began again. Farther away, he felt sure this time.
“Are you okay?” Miguel’s hoarse whisper blended with the jungle noises.
Ray nodded. He yanked the leather belt from his waistband. Lassoing his middle, he lashed his useless arm to his torso.
Miguel bobbed his head. Time to move on.
A steep ditch lay on his right, and Miguel dropped over the edge. Ray slipped from his cover. Without hesitation, he scooted down the ridge. Angular trees provided regular braces on the way. He practically fell against the first, catching himself with his good arm. The same technique worked for the second descent. Reaching for the next trunk, he stepped into a rotted log. The misstep propelled him into the rough and broken bark, left-shoulder first. He gritted his teeth against a choked cry. Pain blinded him. Miguel glanced back and changed course, but Ray waved him on. Breathing deep, he pushed off the tree and forged ahead.
His rescuer hesitated while Ray closed the gap. At the bottom, a gully with a trickling stream provided them with secretive travel. Downed trees and boulders made the path look like something out of a video game.
But the men searching for them weren’t playing.
“Not sure how many are dead at the mission.” A man’s low voice in sharp Spanish staccato floated down from behind the heavy undergrowth on the ridge above them. Obviously he’d been involved with the attack.
Ahead, Miguel paused and held up his hand. Ray halted.
“The missionary got away, but we’re looking for him.”
Ray went cold. He’d received threats from the drug cartel when he helped to shut down their traffic within his area. His actions had even flushed out the powerful leader of the cartel, Sevilla. But that placed Ray in a precarious position. The policía hadn’t arrested the drug lord yet, but Ray was hopeful. Could Sevilla have arranged for the attack on Ray’s mission? Was he really that powerful?
After a pause, the one-sided conversation above him continued. “We believe he headed to Dumaus, and when we find him, we will bring him to the compound as instructed.”
Ray recognized the village name. He hoped Miguel had a different destination planned.
“Say again? The signal here is not so good.” The man’s voice rose. His footstep tramped closer in the undergrowth on the plateau.
Miguel motioned for Ray to crawl beneath the overhang created by a massive Montezuma Cypress on the edge of the eroded ravine. Soundlessly, Ray darted for cover, hunkered under a cascade of exposed roots.
“I’ve passed on the explicit instructions. Raymond Johnson will be taken alive.”
A sliver of fear danced around the back of Ray’s neck. Using a fake, utterly common, last name struck him as overkill at the onset of his mission. Now he thanked God that this powerful man couldn’t trace him or his family. Good thing there weren’t any other Johnsons in Heath’s Point. But then, no one knew his hometown either.
The man’s voice faded, but his intent had been clear. People—friends and brothers in Christ—had just given their lives so some insane man could prove his power to Ray. Sevilla gave little thought to the people of the church. He only wanted to destroy the pastor.
Guilt added more weight on his already heaving chest.
They waited for the silence to deepen. The music of birds and animals marked the absence of the phone-using marauder. Ray worried their delay allowed the hunters to get ahead of them. What if he and Miguel caught up to them while trying to escape?
Finally, Miguel stepped out and climbed up the roots.
He shimmied back down, rejoining Ray underneath. “I see no one.”
“I must thank you. I owe you my life.”
“You owe me nothing, my friend. I am happy I came to Asmirandu when I did.”
Only a few days before the raid, Miguel had arrived from a village to the north. He’d brought with him some supplies for the mission and a letter of introduction from a missionary Ray had met a few times.
Miguel wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. “I saw the men heading for the mission, but I could not run fast enough to warn you.”
“I’m still in your debt. I don’t want to think of what might have happened if you had not pulled me out the back door.” In truth, Ray didn’t want to think about the raid at all, but he expected the scene to revisit him again and again.
Miguel took the lead again. They broke through the forest cover far too quickly to suit Ray. Miguel dashed across a large field of head-high grasses. Ray accelerated, but his guide disappeared into bobbing reeds. He hoped his steps remained straight. An accidental circle to return the way he came promised disaster.
Shots rang out behind him. The assassins had caught up. At least gunfire confirmed he ran in the right direction.
He climbed a hill. More shots went off. Running in a dark brown shirt through the waving tan stalks, he stood out like a cockroach on a wall. Ducking low, he veered right. Twelve paces. Then peeled to the left for seven. The soft pffft of bullets finding ground nearby made him dart right again.
Reaching the crest, Ray escaped into the shelter of thick forest.
Miguel waited for him inside the dark shadows. “Do you need to rest? We could stop.”
“No!” His burning lungs couldn’t waste air on words. And the crack of a shot hitting a nearby tree propelled him on.
Miguel led him through the outer edges of the Montes Azules Reserve that lay in Chiapas. The shouts from behind them faded, finally stopping altogether. Ray followed his guide’s breakneck pace, desperate to reach safety before the dimness of jungle became the blackness of night.
They slowed to a jog when the growth thickened. Several times Miguel stopped to help Ray push through walls of vegetation. His shoulder ached and his cheek stung with every drop of sweat that found its way to a cut he’d received during the attack. Thankfully it stopped bleeding.
Thoughts of Cathy filled his head—the way she looked running through the hayfield, her bright red hair standing out among the stalks. Leaving her behind tore him apart but, at least, his lone departure kept her safe. What would he have done had she been at the mission with him? He shuddered.
With God’s help, he hoped to see her again, though he knew things would never be the same between them.
Ray lost sight of Miguel in the filtering light. He’d ducked into a low arch in a mass of vines. Ray saw no other way around the layers of underbrush. Like the Going on a Bear Hunt book his mom used to read to him, the living barrier allowed no access around, over, or through the bushes. He had to follow Miguel and crawl under heavy branches. He thanked the Lord that he had tied up his arm to keep the lifeless thing out of the way.
He hit all fours—well, threes—hopping like a lame dog. He struggled through the labyrinth, army-crawling for the last few yards. Working his way out, Ray left the great wall of jungle. A western road that led to San Salbitaso lay under his knees.
At least the path didn’t go near Dumaus, though the hunters might have changed course.
Ray’s memories of the vicious surge, led by the four hooded men, hurt worse than the throbbing of his shoulder and his cheek put together. He had no idea who or how many, but people died in that little stucco building. His people. They had depended on him. He let them down. He didn’t know how deeply the assassin’s knife had slashed his cheek, but nothing cut as deeply as the consequences of his failure.
All of his failure.
Miguel stopped to look at his cheek before the setting sun removed all chances of seeing anything. “Your cut looks bad, amigo. Better stop and clean it.”
“The airfield’s close, right? Wait ’til we get there.” Ray didn’t pause. Let Miguel catch up with him for a change.
Hesitations caused this problem in the first place. Ray received threats but didn’t take them seriously. Well, he believed them now. With people he cared for at risk, he dare not let his guard down.
He jogged to the rise above San Salbitaso. The valley spread below him like a panoramic photograph. The last rays of the sun illuminated the tiny village of thatched roofs cradled between two rocky hills. Though he likely viewed the beauty for the last time, he dared not pause to create a mental picture, as the camouflage of the jungle no longer protected them. The little-used road gave direction, but if Miguel found this washed-out, two-rutted track, those hunting them would have no problem. The remaining light faded. Dusk worked in their favor. He picked up the pace.
Safety neared, but uncertainty threatened to blast a hole in the net.
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