Chapter 17 - Collateral Damage
As expected, the club where Zamora holed up slept during the daylight hours. Vin had a clear view of the gated rear parking lot where two, side by side black sedans nosed against the building. As evening approached, Vin noted the arrival and departure of the liquor trucks and other supplies, but no Zamora. Using his shooting scope, Vin checked every face that came and went from the building. Some people he remembered, but most of them were new, young faces looking for a place in either the business or the Cartel.
When it grew dark and the club opened for business, Vin’s patience paid off when he saw the private back door open and watched a bulky security man step out and visually inspect the secure lot. A flash of irritation burned when Oscar stepped out on the man’s heels, alone. Vin could see Oscar’s mouth moving rapidly and a sneer of disapproval furrowing his face. Oscar made an abrupt gesture with his hand toward the dark sedans and turned, barking orders back into the open door. Knowing Oscar rarely left Zamora’s side, Vin had to assume that Zamora wasn’t in the building; he recognized the dictator-like attitude that Oscar boldly flaunted only when he was left in charge. The motion of the side gate to the parking area sliding open caught Vin’s attention.
It took just a few seconds for Vin to pack up and move. The darkness allowed swift travel to the structure and through the open gate, where he slipped along the building wall to the sedans. Oscar stood in the doorway, chastising the big security guard whose back was to Vin. Vin dropped to the ground and moved to the lead car and let the air out of a tire, Oscar’s tirade covering the soft hissing noise. Then he retreated to the far side of the second car and waited, watching for the driver from under the vehicle.
Oscar fumed by the doorway and slapped the back of the driver’s head when he hurried through the club door. The large security guard didn’t move from the doorway. Vin heard the chirp of the first car as it unlocked, then a door opened and Vin saw Oscar’s feet disappear into the back seat. The driver moved to the front, opened his door, and his feet, too, disappeared as he took his seat. After a moment, the engine turned over and he heard crunching gravel as the sedan moved. Seconds later, the car jerked to a stop and he saw the driver’s feet re-appear and move around the car as he checked the tires.
Vin couldn’t help but smile when he heard a quiet curse and a louder explanation, followed by muted, angry words from Oscar, still inside the car. The security man stepped over and let Oscar out and Vin shifted into a ready crouch as Oscar stomped around to the second car and paused, a metallic click signaling that this car was now unlocked. Oscar yanked the door open and climbed in, verbally berating the driver all the while. Vin was happy to see the security man heading back into the building.
The first car turned off and Vin heard a quiet “asshole” exchange between driver and security man as they passed. Vin grinned at that, and then he rested his hand on the back door handle as he pulled out the Sig from the small of his back. The security man disappeared inside the building while the chauffeur headed to the driver door of the second car.
“Do not think this incident will go unreported,” Oscar snapped from the rear seat. The car jiggled. “You are paid to maintain these cars and I am sure there are others quite willing to replace you! I am sure they are more capable, too!”
Vin rose to the balls of his feet. The driver pulled his door open and Vin burst into action. He simultaneously yanked open a rear door and shoved the Sig into Oscar’s side as he joined him in the back seat.
“Drive,” Vin barked.
Oscar froze with an undignified squeak; Vin was not surprised he did not fight, but the driver was a wild card. Pleased, Vin saw that the driver also froze, one hand on the wheel and the other stuck under his jacket.
“Don’t. Your brain will be all over the windshield before it clears the holster.” The driver slowly returned his hand to the wheel. “Now drive.”
He closed his door and obeyed.
“You!” Oscar whined, blinking at Vin.
“You remember me. Now shut up.” Vin told the driver turn west and at the edge of town, ordered him to pull behind an empty building and park. He had the driver drop the keys on the floor of the car and exit. Vin shoved Oscar out directly behind the driver while maintaining a bruising grip on Oscar’s arm. Using him as a shield, Vin had the driver drop his gun on the ground and lace his fingers together on his head, then marched him to a stout telephone pole at the back of the lot. He had the driver hug the pole.
“Here.” Vin shoved Oscar toward the man and pulled a roll of duct tape from a jacket pocket. He tossed it to Oscar. “Tape his mouth and then tape him to the pole.”
Oscar’s weasel features twitched and as he opened his mouth to protest, Vin loosened a shot that splintered the wood just above the driver’s head. “Next one’s in your knee. Do it.” Even with shaking hands, Oscar finished quickly. Vin motioned for him to return to the car, following closely on his heels without a backward glance, and shoved him behind the wheel. Vin climbed in behind and pressed the gun in the nape of Oscar’s neck. “Drive.”
“You’re . . . you’re supposed to be in jail. Or dead.” Oscar followed Vin’s directions, glancing sporadically at the rearview mirror. Nervous sweat beaded on his upper lip and temple, and he blinked rapidly.
“Then think of me as a ghost.”
Vin directed him to a deserted lot north of town and instructed him to park next to Vin’s waiting Jeep. He hauled his captive from the sedan and shoved him to the ground where he used the duct tape to bind Oscar’s hands behind him. Then, Vin pulled him to a sit and secured a bag over his head, hauled him to his feet and pushed him into the Jeep’s passenger seat, securing him with the seat belt. Oscar, dripping with sweat, begged pitifully for his life.
Vin paused a moment, hands on hips, as he considered the situation. Oscar jumped on the hesitation with hope and the bribes and offers reached outrageous levels. Vin sighed, rolled his eyes, and then reached over and pulled the bag off.
Oscar quit blabbing and stared at him through wide, hopeful eyes. Vin returned the stare with a frown, then snorted once and grabbed the tape, ripping off a long section. It didn’t take long to tape Oscar’s protesting mouth shut.
“You’re makin’ my ears bleed,” Vin growled before replacing the bag with a sharp tug. Oscar’s verbalizations were reduced grunts and squeaks.
With his captive secured and some quiet arranged, Vin slipped behind the wheel and fired up the engine. The night stole all shadows as he headed northeast to the open desert and absolute privacy.
Oscar’s body ached. Each rough mile vaulted fear to another level and eventually depleted all adrenalin. Without it, he felt all the aches and every grain of dust grinding into his sweat-dampened body. He had to focus on breathing, finding that any elevated rhythm grayed his consciousness. The last thing he wanted to do was pass out because he wasn’t sure he would wake up again.
The black bag nixed any ability to tell night from day, but the cool wind told him that the sun had set. He’d lost complete track of time and direction and instead, tried to use the ache of his body to gauge how long they’d been driving. It was impossible to do so because Oscar hadn’t been this sore, even in those rough days as a coyote running illegals north over the border. Well, there was that first summer when he was new at the job and found how hard it actually was, leading men, women and families to America. He’d discovered a shortcut early on - take their money and leave them in the desert before he taxed his own body. No, Oscar Rogelio Cruz hadn’t been close to this sore in a long, long time and he didn’t like it.
Finally, the Jeep stopped and the motor quieted. Absolute silence, interrupted by heated pops from the engine and his own breathing, caused his ears to throb. He felt his seat belt release with a click, then heard Tanner leave the vehicle. He shifted, checking to see if the bonds loosened during the ride. They hadn’t - all he felt was gritty sweat and rising alarm. It was too quiet.
Suddenly, Oscar hit dirt hard after being yanked sideways from the vehicle without warning. He kicked and squirmed when a strong hand grabbed the back of his collar and pulled, dragging him through warm sand. His struggles lessened as the collar dug into his neck and pinched his throat - all his energy eventually centered on sucking his next breath through his nose. He grew dizzy.
Under the black bag, Oscar blinked, realizing that he must have passed out. He gulped air, noting that the tape gone from his mouth. His cheeks burned where the tape had been and his throat throbbed, along with his shoulders, head and every other part of his body. The black bag still covered his head. Cool air brushed his chest and legs . . . what?
“Where are my clothes?” he croaked.
“It’s a nice night. You don’t need ‘em.” The slightly raspy voice was soft and close, somewhere behind him.
Oscar twisted his torso, discovering that he was duct taped around his waist to some sort of pole, sitting on the ground. “Wha . . . what do you want?”
Tanner’s dry chuckle popped goose bumps on Oscar’s skin. He twitched in fright when Tanner spoke so close to his ear that his lips brushed the bag. “Tiger’s Eye,” was all he said.
“I . . . I don’t know what you mean . . .”
Again, the chuckle. “Maybe, maybe not.”
Oscar missed the frightening laugh when he felt cold, sharp steel against his throat instead. “Really, I know nothing! Zamora . . . he has what you want. I don’t know anything!” The blade dug in, cutting off his words.
“Then tell me everything you do know and maybe I’ll let you live.”
The blade shifted pressure to its tip and Oscar felt a long line cut into his skin at the edge of the suffocating bag. He screamed.
“No one out here but coyotes, but you already know that.” Tanner paused, and Oscar did, indeed, hear the distant yowl of a pack. “I’ve read all about you, Oscar. I read all about the men, women and children you left to die out here.”
The blade tip turned 90 degrees and traveled downward next to his spine. Oscar’s scream turned into a petrified moan. The tip turned another 90 degrees and trailed parallel to the first.
“Lots of families would like a piece of you, I’m sure. I know the U.S. government does. We’re in Mexico at the moment, but the U.S. is only about 20 feet to your left. You c’n go either way, Oscar.”
Oscar panted, feeling faint and unable to answer. Warm blood dampened his shoulder and trickled down his back and chest.
“But you’re not the one they want me to get. You’re just - collateral damage, I guess.”
The knife lifted from his stinging neck, the pain easing a little. Oscar caught his breath. “Who . . . do . . . you want, then? Zamora?” It was impossible for his voice to stop squeaking. “He’s in Mexico City!”
A disgusted chuff was his reply, and then the knife tip was back, tapping at the burning area near his spine. “I already know that.” Then Tanner leaned in, his voice intimately loud next to Oscar’s ear. “Feel this? Imagine your skin as a piece of tape.” The sharp tip flicked an edge of the newly carved line. “I’m just gonna peel up the end here . . .”
Oscar screamed again as exquisite, unbearable pain exploded on his neck. When the pain ebbed, all he could do was sob.
“There. I’ve peeled back about an inch of your skin. If I peel the whole thing back, I’ll have a piece of your skin about the size of a band aid.” Tanner flicked the hanging skin with a finger tip. Oscar’s body twitched. “Just think how it will feel if I carve out a piece the size of, say, a dollar bill. Or a piece of paper. . .” The knife tip scored a line down the middle of Oscar’s chest. “Or maybe enough to make a vest. How’s that sound? All those exposed nerves . . .”
“No,” Oscar gasped. “Please, no!”
“Then tell me what MacMillan’s up to. I saw him with you. Tiger’s Eye.”
Oscar felt the cold tip nip and dig into the hollow of his throat and start a downward line.
“They didn’t tell me! I only heard! They were talking!”
The knife paused. In the distance, the coyote pack broke into excited yips as they cornered their prey. Oscar’s stomach turned obscenely.
“About?” Tanner leaned a little into the knife.
“Getting rid of Adrian and Gustavo Carnicero!”
“Adrian’s old news, Oscar.” One inch of flesh burned at the knife’s tip. “What about Felix?”
“He’s part of it!” The knife stopped and Oscar’s heart tattooed against his chest for several seconds causing the knife to niggle painfully against a rib. “Felix and Zamora had Adrian killed and Gustavo is next!”
The knife pressure disappeared. Oscar heard gravel crunch as Tanner took a step back. In the distance, the coyotes quieted to share their kill and silence hung heavy between the two men. A tiny breeze rippled the bag against Oscar’s sticky face.
“Felix had MacMillan kill his brother?”
“Zamora and Felix Carnicero are working together?”
“I don’t know for sure! I . . . I think so!” Oscar panted heavily. His head was light and spinning and the exposed raw patch on his neck screamed with every puff of wind.
“Is Arturo Carnicero dead?” Tanner asked.
“I don’t know. No one knows. No one’s seen him in over a month. Felix is running things right now.”
“Where was Arturo last seen?”
“Mexico City.” Oscar sagged against his bonds as shock began to settle in. He blinked, still seeing nothing but black, but knew he was about to pass out. He forced his mouth to work. “Please. Don’t kill me.”
Then there was a flash of bright light followed by dark nothingness.
Vin panted lightly as he climbed in and started the Jeep. It was an hour or two before dawn and he knew he had to be out of sight at sunrise. Even though this was the middle of an unrelenting, killer desert, he knew the U.S. Border Patrol would soon be along the desolate road looking for signs of crossing over. They would find it here, and at the end of the trail they would find Oscar Cruz, a little bruised and scarred, but alive. Ezra’s packet included an arrest warrant on Cruz for murder. Many people died in this very desert when Cruz deserted them after taking payment. Now, he was out of the way.
Vin rolled the new information Oscar supplied around in his mind. Things finally fell in place - Zamora and Felix planned to take control of the entire drug and weapons trade in northern Mexico. The C.I.A. had no idea. Along with the rest of the world, they thought Zamora and the Carniceros were fighting against each other.
Arturo Carnicero, Felix and Gustavo’s father, was the subject of Vin’s C.I.A. mission. Being the head of the Carnicero Cartel, the C.I.A. figured that if Arturo was out of the way, things would settle down to petty bickering among lesser cartels. Little did they know, things were about to get worse. Much worse. Working together, Zamora and Felix would be unstoppable.
And MacMillan worked for both of them.
Vin headed south. He had until Mexico City to come up with a plan.