Chapter 20 - Joined

In the late afternoon of Vin's second day in Mexico City, grey clouds rolled in from the west on a cool wind, prickling his blood with a feeling of unrest. He edged the Jeep off the narrow, brick street into a questionable parking spot right in front of his small rented room on the second floor above an old, empty market. A rickety wooden staircase zigzagged along the alley side of the building and led to his peeling front door and from there, a small window facing the street overlooked his Jeep and the low-slung factory building across the street. He could just see the rooftop of the Carnicero mansion in the light of day.

Standing next to his vehicle, Vin shrugged his coat higher on his neck and worked to close the zipper. He'd been all over the hills in the past two days, both on foot and in the Jeep, and confirmed that any stealthy approach to the compound would be difficult if not impossible. He'd mapped the land, though, and had ideas on his next step, but right now his growling stomach needed attention. He grabbed a worn baseball hat with a threadbare Diablos Rojos del Mexico team patch on the front and tugged it down over his light hair.

Bundled against the sharp wind, Vin sniffed as he walked and calculated that rain would fall later tonight. Just then, a faint roll of thunder confirmed the assessment and he headed up the street to the main thoroughfare. As he'd done the afternoon before, he intended to cruise the bars and eateries looking for people and vehicles from the compound. Today, though, dinner came first. He tugged at the waist of his jeans, noting its looseness. "Nathan would not be happy with the weight I've lost," he thought with a wan smile.

Vin dodged traffic as he crossed the main road and ducked down an alley he knew was a shortcut to one of the restaurants he had in mind. He walked rapidly with his hands deep in his coat pockets and his eyes scanning his path. Ahead, near the end of the alley, he saw three men around an agitated woman wearing a bright skirt. Instinct told him she was in trouble; he automatically melted into the shadows and shifted his weight to the balls of his feet as he approached.

The men laughed but the woman was angry and Vin paused; he knew that voice. Two of the men chose that moment to grab two of Ronnie's arms while the third moved in and roughly fondled her breasts. "Ah, chica," Vin heard him growl. "You are very ripe!" They all laughed as he dodged her kick, moved in close to grab her jaw and pushed her mouth closed with one hand while the other groped further.

Vin's blood boiled as he walked rapidly to them, his eyes locked on his first target from the shadow of his hat brim. They didn’t know he was there until he was upon them, grabbing the groper by his right arm and snapping the forearm bones cleanly with one smooth move. The man screeched and dropped, clearing Vin's way to the two that held Ronnie. A quick kick shattered a kneecap and a follow up jab broke the nose of one, his scream garbled when he fell.

The third man happened to be the biggest. Ronnie snarled and twisted in his grip, trying to rake his face with her nails but he held her off like a puppy by the scruff of her neck. He focused on Vin and dropped into a defensive stance before tossing Ronnie aside and into a wall where she fell into a dazed heap.

Vin shot a kick with blinding speed aiming for the crotch, but the big man twisted and Vin hit a rock-solid thigh. He flexed low and pushed off, arching a second kick to the man’s jaw and connected, knocking him back.

Vin landed awkwardly, wobbling a second to gain balance and then spun on the ball of one foot to avoid the swipe of an enormous knife. Vin grabbed the wrist as it passed and forced the motion beyond what was intended, pulling his opponent off balance. Vin twisted the arm a bit and leaned down on the back of the man’s elbow, bending it the wrong way. It cracked like a dry stick.

The bigger man dropped like a rock with a yelp and Vin kept moving, grabbing Ronnie and dragging her around the corner where they crossed a busy street and headed to an area packed with vendor tents, running children and unrepentant scooter jockeys riding on the sidewalks. The air was heavy with smells - smoke, exhaust, body odor and the unexpected cooking odors that made his mouth water. Ronnie breathed unevenly and trembled under Vin’s hand as he pulled her along, but she kept up without falling apart. In the thick of everything, Vin slowed to a walk and she caught up, and then he laced her arm through his elbow. He gave her a sidelong look from under the brim of his hat.

“You all right?” he asked as they weaved through the crowd at a leisurely pace.

“Yes, yes, I am fine, fine.” She took a breath. “Thank you.” Ronnie adjusted her blouse and turned her wide eyes to him, and then gasped. They jerked to a stop. “Oh, my God, Vin! I did not recognize you! Everything happened so fast . . .”

“It’s okay,” Vin said lowly. “Let’s keep quiet and get you out of here. Where to?”

“It does not matter. They will find me again.”

Vin swore softly and changed course. “What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing!”

Vin shushed her and hurried to a large stationary crowd waiting outside a small restaurant. They hovered just outside hearing range.

“I thought you were dead,” Ronnie said when they stopped. “Or in prison. I have heard some things . . . “

“I didn’t kill Adrian or shoot the Judge.” Vin shifted his stance to check the area as he spoke. “Who were those guys?”

“Butcher wannabes.” She said the second word in English. “Is that the way to say it?”

Vin issued a short, sharp laugh. “Yeah, that’s right. You find them or did they find you?”

“The second thing.” She paused as they released hands to allow a woman with three kids clinging to her like limpets to pass through the waiting crowd. “I came down here to see Felix, to ask him to keep the violence out of my city.”

Vin had to give her points for pure gumption. “How’d that work for ya?”

“I can’t get in,” she said angrily. “All this way and I can’t get the last kilometer.”

Satisfied that they were not followed, Vin took her hand pulled her along at a strolling walk away from the crowd. “It's better you stay clear of the place, Ronnie.”

She slammed to a stop, planting her feet and throwing her shoulders back. The burn of anger in her eyes reminded Vin of Inez, the bar owner where Team 7 held many “debriefings.” Both women were passionate when it came to things they loved.

“You are the reason I am here.” Ronnie’s grip on his hand tightened. “You were doing something. You weren’t taking your trials lying down. You inspired me to fight.”

“You don’t -“

“You’re are right, I don’t know much about you but I do know that you are driven by passion - passion about something very close to you. You are fighting for it and I am doing the same.”

Their eyes locked while she stood in toe to toe defiance. Vin finally nodded once in acknowledgement.

“True,” he admitted. “But I know how to fight. And this will get dangerous. I would never tell you to go home, but I am asking you to stand down. Just for now.” Vin wasn’t sure exactly when her cause became part of his, but it seemed like a natural fit.

A wash of emotions came over Ronnie’s features as she thought, but it wasn’t long before she nodded. “I do trust you,” she said. “And I know nothing about you. Is that crazy?”

He gave her a wry smile and dropped his chin to study his feet. "I've heard crazier things."

"I've heard some things, too, since I have been here. Zamora is looking for you."

Vin's head snapped up and he locked eyes with Ronnie. "Do you know why?" he asked cautiously.

"No, not exactly," she said slowly as she studied him. "I can arrange a meet if you wish to find out why. It wouldn't be with Zamora personally, though. It would be an intermediary. His people know me."

Vin wondered what that meant. Did his plan to implicate MacMillan and Felix fail? Did Zamora suspect him? There was only one way to find out. "Do it," he said. "How soon can it be arranged?

"Tonight," she said. Bells from a nearby church rang the hour and Ronnie glanced in their direction. "I know where he is staying. Meet me in front of the church at nine tonight. I think I can get him there."

"Ronnie –" Vin started, concerned. Moving around in this city after dark was never a good idea.

"Shh, I will be fine. Be there." Ronnie stepped back and turned to go. "Nine o'clock."

All Vin could do was nod and watch her disappear back into the crowd. He felt a cold drop of rain hit his cheek and looked up. It would be an uncomfortable night.

Somehow, the fat clouds held back a downpour and instead, sprinkled Vin's shoulders and hat with a fine mist instead. The wind died right after dark and the intermittent, throaty thunder faded. Vin walked with his fists deep in his pockets and his coat collar up, his pace and posture emanating an easy, relaxed air. In reality, all his senses were alive as he approached the church at the assigned time.

Two figures huddled against the stone entry of the church, Ronnie easily recognizable wrapped in a bright coat. The other person was much bigger and clad entirely in black. Vin strolled up on Ronnie's side and stopped, nodding silently in her direction. She flashed a nervous smile in return.

"You Tanner?" The dark man said without preamble.

"Yeah. What do you want?"

The man gave him a visual head to toe exam. "Zamora heard you were still alive and after Tiger's Eye."

"Where'd he hear that?"

"Oscar Cruz."

Vin pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes. "I heard he's – indisposed up north."

"That's true." The man paused, and then added, "Cruz had one phone call. It was to Zamora."

"So the weasel did his job," Vin thought with satisfaction. Aloud, he said, "Go on."

"Zamora wants to help you in your quest."

"I heard Zamora and Tiger's Eye were in bed together," Vin said, trying for a wary tone.

"Not since Tiger's Eye tried to kill him a few days ago. Now, my boss wants him out of the way."

Vin tipped his head at the term. "Revenge?"

The man shook his head. "Not against Tiger's Eye. He needs the dog out of the way so he can deal with the master."

Inwardly, Vin smiled – his plan worked. Zamora wanted to take out Felix, and handed him MacMillan to clear the way. He nodded. "Are the Carniceros aware of this – situation? Will I find obstacles?"

“Maybe. Meet me tomorrow for a location.”

“And money. Cash. Lots of it.”

The man cocked his head. “How much?”

“One million, American. Half now, half later. Cash.”

The man nodded. “I will make the offer. Veronica will tell you the location tomorrow.”

They parted just as the rain began. Ronnie draped her scarf over her head and snuggled into Vin’s side. “Come. My place is close.”

Vin’s mind raced as they walked, working out a way to make sure Felix and Zamora met and exploded. He needed all the distractions he could get to find. He wanted Mac, but getting Arturo Carnicero, as the CIA wanted, was the only way to get home; he still needed proof of his innocence, too. Maybe something was inside the mansion - all he had now was hope.

They picked up food from a street vendor and Ronnie took him to a small room off a woman’s dress shop that was much cleaner than the place he’d found. They talked and ate by candle light, sharing a sweet sangria.

After, she led him to her bed.

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