Chapter 19 - Integrated

Mexico City was enormous. Vin’s Jeep jerked to a stop on the shoulder of the road and below him, from the base of the foothills and as far as the eye could see, a collection of humanity survived together under smog-stained skies. A chill zinged down his spine and his stomach clenched; how could people live like this, he wondered.

It was late afternoon and the sun warmed his back. The hot engine popped as it cooled and the frame rocked as Vin stood in the driver’s seat and leaned his crossed arms on the frame of the windshield. His shirt, sticky with sweat, clung to his body and Vin’s fingers felt sweaty grit on his forearms. With a sigh, he closed his eyes and tipped his head back, allowing the wind to filter through his hair and dry his scalp. The corner of his mouth slanted into an amused angle when his own smell reached his nostrils. Then he chuckled, picturing Ezra’s disgusted face and Chris’ sour expression when same scent hit their noses.

Vin allowed the mental distraction for a minute more, then pushed everything in the past out of his mind and imagined a blank screen, like in a movie theatre. Mentally, he saw himself walk in front of it, sit taylor-style on an empty floor, and focus on the center of the vast whiteness.

In the center, a layout of the Carnicero property began to take shape. Lines, boxes and other shapes indicating buildings popped up as Vin recalled the aerial photos, sketches and diagrams from Ezra’s package. All along his journey, Vin committed every page to memory and then burned them, leaving damning Cartel information behind in a trail of ash. As the image came together, the process slowed and then paused. Vin rotated the depiction in his mind, viewing it from all angles in a way only he could manage. It took him many years to realize this was a special gift that only he seemed to possess; he’d stopped trying to explain the process to others after they’d looked at him like he was nuts.

It’s funny, he thought with a snort; the one thing that once made him feel like a freak of nature ended up being the thing that gave him the gift of confidence. It was a gift only appreciated by the Army and his ATF team and for once, he wielded it with complete selfishness because it was all he had.

Vin opened his eyes and immediately scanned the edges of the city below, not long before he picked out both natural and man-made landmarks that told him where the Carnicero compound was located. This compound, unlike Zamora’s place, was perched on a far hill top. At night, the lights of Mexico City below would spread before it like a carpet of sparkling diamonds for nearly 180 degrees. It had to be spectacular sight, and it would also be nearly impossible to approach in the light of day.

Pursing his lips in thought, Vin retrieved a water bottle from the passenger seat and took a long pull, nearly emptying it. He poured the rest over his head, not caring that he splashed the seats. Dropping the now empty bottle to the floor, he shook his head, shooting out an arc of drops and absently combed the mop back with his fingers. Using an elastic band dug out from the deep of a pocket, he wrestled his hair into a shaggy tail and dropped back into the driver’s seat.

“Last leg for now, Nettie,” he said to the machine. The name came easy as the silver-grey Jeep reminded him of his tough and trustworthy friend in Denver - he’d never tell her about it, though. Tanners, generally, weren’t stupid.

The engine caught with the first twist of the key and Vin dropped it into gear, starting the zigzag trip off the mountain to the floor of the wide valley and the choking cluster of city. On the other side, overlooking the dirty gathering of humanity, Vin hoped to end this hated existence.

Traffic jams, pedestrians, bikes and mopeds topped the list of Things Vin Hated Most In The World just behind Tiger’s Eye by the time he’d fought his way to the other side of the city. He felt dirty, inside and out, from the polluted air and longed to escape but one glance at his goal perched smugly on the distant hills refocused his resolve. Vin stuck to his plan of getting to the edge of the city closest to the compound. He figured that any supplies for the household would be close, increasing his chances of locating at least one of the Cartel workers.

Getting close to the Carnicero’s home would be much harder than getting close to Zamora’s, and Vin planned to get very, very close. He stopped the Jeep at the edge of town he felt was nearest his goal and looked around. Long shadows told him sunset was close and he needed to be settled by dark. He needed food and sleep, too, so Vin shut down the Carnicero part of his brain and pursued comforts.

Vin spotted a small market and parked in front. Inside, he picked up a few items, enough for a day or two, and studied the people inside. It was easy to pick out the woman in charge - she bustled through the store, answering questions, pointing out discrepancies and issuing order all with a no-nonsense attitude. Vin watched her until she stopped at the end of the long check-out counter and started scribbling on a clipboard.

He approached her with a leisurely stroll, holding his items to his chest. She glanced up when he was a yard or two away and he gave her a tired smile. “Can you help me?” he asked. She gave him a long look, trying to place the northern accent of Vin’s Spanish. “I need a room to rent for a few weeks. Do you know of anyone in the area?”

With that statement, her scrutiny turned from curious to suspicious. Her dark eyes raked him from head to toe, lingering on the tattoo on his one bare bicep and the scruff of beard on his chin. He also saw her check what she could see of his forearms. “She’s lookin’ for needle tracks,” he realized. Vin knew he looked a mess and he didn’t want this woman thinking he had anything to do with any Cartels.

“I’m a geologist.” He shuffled his armload of brightly packaged, Mexican junk food to one side and offered his hand after wiping it on his jeans. “Buck Wilmington. From Texas. I’m studying’ the, um, landscape around here.”

She quirked a brow and allowed Vin to shake her fingertips. “Mayra Hidalgo,” she replied slowly. “Texas?” Recognition of the accent clicked into place and Vin noticed it in her eyes.

“Yeah. Grad student. University of Texas. Hook ‘em horns!” he laughed shortly after making a longhorn figure with his fingers, then he had to concentrate on his shifting armload. “Longhorns. Football team? Um . . .”

His nervousness made her smile, and she jotted down an address. “This place is around the corner. Ask for Juan Perez. He usually has rooms.”

“I really appreciate it. I’ll get out of your hair now.” He smiled and ducked his head in thanks. “I’ll see you around, Ms. Hidalgo.”

She watched him with some amusement as he bought his things and left, noting how Rebecca, the checker, batted her eyes and smiled much too largely at him. When he walked away, Rebecca stared wantonly after him. Mayra clucked with disapproval and made a mental note to speak with her but a moment later, she realized she’d have to address the entire female staff because every one of them watched the stranger exit with the same shocking expression as Rebecca. With a flustered huff, Mayra spun around to return to her office. “Girls these days have no shame!” she muttered, exasperated.

“Who?” Chris looked up at Ezra through headache-narrowed eyes from his desk chair. His long fingers rubbed his temples as he clumped through his brain trying to place the name Ezra just said.

“Oscar Cruz. He is a person of interest south of the border.” Ezra spoke in a matter-of-fact way that told Chris that his undercover agent was trying to tell him more than with words alone. JD confirmed weeks ago that the office was bugged so they slowly developed verbal language that included body language. Only the team was able to decipher it amongst themselves.

If his head wasn’t pounding, the complete message would be clearer.

Ezra shifted slightly, which, for him, screamed impatience. “Mr. Larabee, I would like to speak with Border Patrol and gain permission to speak with Mr. Cruz. He is being held in San Diego.”

San Diego. That place shined bright in his cluttered memory. Chris sat up then pushed to his feet as the headache suddenly waned. “Is this about . . . guns?” He tried to put more meaning in the last word.

Ezra smirked. “That is what the ‘F’ part of our agency’s moniker stands for, is it not?” The distinct and careful nod that followed confirmed what Chris suspected - this was about Vin. “My contacts hinted that he may be involved in that shipment seized in July. I will let you know what I find out, of course, but you may get a call from the supervisor.”

“Sure, sure.” Chris waved Ezra away. “Send JD in will, ya?”

“Certainly.” The dismissed Agent slipped through the doorway and the door clicked shut. Chris let out a breath and wandered to the window where he stared at the surrounding mountains without seeing them.

It seemed like eons since they’d last seen Vin and his bloody visage was not the best last sight Chris ever hoped to have in his head. He missed him; Vin’s sure and steady solidness at his side meant more than he could ever put into words and Chris hoped this nightmare would end sometime. He’d given up on “soon” long ago.

The second of Vin’s replacements left just last week and the third one looked to be hot on his tail. This team needed a sniper and only one man fit the bill, so they viewed replacements as temporary fixes and treated them as such. Chris thought about installing a revolving door.

“You needed me?” JD’s perky voice jarred Chris from his thoughts.

“Yeah. My computer’s acting up and I’m about to shoot it.” Chris’ words didn’t match his motions and JD frowned. Chris returned to his desk and began scribbling on a pad as he talked. “Can’t tell if it’s the keyboard or the monitor.”

On the pad, he wrote: “Find out what you can from Ezra’s contact in San Diego. Get the stuff they won’t share.” Chris tapped on the keyboard as he turned the pad for JD to read.

JD skimmed the message and nodded. “Um, yeah. Here, let me sit there.”

Chris moved and let JD take the chair. The boy’s fingers flew over the keys and Chris stood back. Images and lines of code flashed on the screen, one page instantly replaced by another before Chris could draw a breath. He marveled at the boy’s speed. “Why can’t I stop thinking of him as a boy?” Chris wondered.

“Here,” JD said, standing a few minutes later. “All done.”

Chris looked at his screen and saw that his screen background was now the head of the Terminator. One red eye stared at him from the familiar silver head. Chris snorted. “That’s why,” he muttered, answering his silent question as he reclaimed his chair. One file folder floated, centered on the screen.

“What?” JD asked, grinning. “When you log out for the day, power down the machine and things will go back to normal.” He cocked his head, waiting for an indication that Chris understood.

Chris jotted a note. “That will make the file disappear?”

JD nodded. “Anything else?”

“No. Get out.” Chris crumpled the note and stuffed it in his pocket, weary of this subterfuge. All he wanted was Vin back where he belonged.

With the door shut, Chris opened the file and began to read. On the surface, Oscar Cruz sat in Federal lock up charged with human trafficking and murder. Beyond that, the names Chris noted in the file as the man’s associates rang very familiar bells and he had no doubt he crossed paths with Vin fairly recently. He flipped back to the beginning of the file and the account of his arrest. Reading it confirmed his suspicion and he understood why Ezra was interested.

At the end of the report, Chris perked up when he saw a video interrogation file attachment and he hit the play button without hesitation.

The angle was from an upper corner of the room, behind the interrogator. Chris could see a vivid white bandage on the man’s neck where Vin left his mark. Oscar Cruz was disheveled and shaken and speaking rapidly in Spanish, which annoyed Chris without end. Still, he listened to the weasel and snarled when he heard Vin’s name, “Americano” followed by a vulgar expletive, and eventually, “Mexico City”.

That’s all he needed to hear to feel closer to his lost brother. Just knowing Vin was in Mexico City brought him alive in Chris’ mind, brightening the dark hole of worry just a little.

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