Chapter 21 - Proof At Last

Vin awoke to darkness with his inner clock telling him it dawn was close. The warmth of Ronnie’s body against him sparked something deeper than carnal lust - it stoked an old fear that he was destined to be alone.

Her back fit in the curve of his body, his nose buried in the thick of her hair just below her ear. Slowly, he stroked the length of her from shoulder to thigh in an effort to regain a positive center; he couldn’t afford to fall apart from old fears now. Doubt and hope were his enemies. Today, he could only think of his next step. He could not afford this distraction, no matter how sweet.

Vin shifted back and then rolled aside through sheer force of will, fighting to gain the narrow vision of a Ranger on assignment. The floor was cold under his feet when he rose to gather his clothes. Closer to the window, he heard soft dripping and realized it was raining - because of it, the Jeep would be risky on the raw mountain trails but he had an idea about an alternative, formed when he scouted the area. He thought of his sure-footed Peso back home and hoped to get something close.

Now, while most people were sleeping, Vin planned to gather and assemble his tools and move them to a safe location. He knew his plan was flimsy, but the two basic points were solid: Kill MacMillan and kill Arturo Carnicero. Opportunity dictated the order of the tasks and Vin needed complete focus.

Dressed, Vin gave Ronnie on long, last look before slipping outside. He would find her later for the location of his meeting. It was time to prepare.

The soft click of the door closing and the faint smell of rain roused Ronnie from sleep. She knew he was gone the moment her eyes opened to the fading shadows night; she missed his warmth. Gazing at the dark rectangle of the closed door Ronnie mentally scolded herself. “This is not the time for relationships.” She forced her thoughts to home and the families and friends she grew up with, and the fact that Tijuana was under siege. Drug cartels made her home a battlefield and it had to stop. She had to see the Carniceros and open their eyes. She had to get into that compound. She needed more information.

Ronnie rolled on her back and stared at the ceiling, sleep forgotten. Vin would know how to get inside. She knew he wanted her out of the way for now but “now” was all she had - her finances were running low and she had to return home soon. She needed to do something different. She needed to play by the men’s rules to get results. She needed something they wanted.

Then she realized she had the upper hand after all. She had all the information she needed. She hoped it didn’t alienate Vin, but her home depended on her getting to the root of all the violence. Vin might become . . . what was the term? Collateral Damage? Her heart fluttered erratically.

Thinking like a man did little to keep Ronnie’s eyes from tearing up. She rolled to her stomach and buried her face in the pillow, greeting the first hour of rain-grayed dawn with frightened sobbing.

The rain eased to occasional drizzle shortly after sunrise and spots of blue peeked above the line of mountains in the west. On the east side of the city, Vin noted the clouds breaking and worked the forecast into his sketchy plans. He parked the Jeep off-road as far as he dared in the slick mud. This location was perfect for a quick escape from the city; the Jeep, fully gassed and stuffed with weatherproofed provisions and water, would stay here until the end. Vin threw camouflaged netting over it to break up its boxy shape.

That done, he turned to his next task - weapons. Since his arrival in Mexico City, the only tool he kept with him was the Denver knife, tucked away in a snug sheath and always in easy reach. Guns, previously disassembled and stored in different areas, were now in disjoined heaps on a thick packing quilt waiting for cleaning and assembly. Vin spent a little over an hour with that task, each minute aligning his mission with his emotions, convincing himself that there was no right or wrong in this - it was justice. It improved the Big Picture. It would save future lives. Losing his soul - again - was a small price to pay.

Vin set his jaw when he clicked the last piece in place and set the Sig automatic at the end of a neat row of guns. He heard his Army commander barking orders in his head and tried to picture Chris in his place. The Army had no problem ordering a sniper to take out a target. Neither did Chris, but the stark difference between them was murder versus immediate protection. In the end, was there any difference?

Thinking was over-rated. It just caused headaches. Vin shut down emotion and gathered his arsenal, carefully stowing them away in a large, waterproof container hidden in a small arroyo. He was ready. All he needed were the locations of his targets and some temporary transportation.

Vin hiked toward the city making one stop along the way.

Vin found Ronnie just before noon in the plaza near her rented room. He expected questions. Instead, he noted a ghost-like shadow in her eyes and emotional distance. Instead of surprise, he felt relief and convinced himself that it was better this way.

“Let’s eat,” she said in a matter-of-fact way. “You have time.”

He nodded and let her lead him to a sidewalk café. Vin’s stomach growled and he realized he hadn’t eaten yet today. Ronnie’s mouth curled into an amused smile and he grinned at her.


“We cannot control our urges,” she said with a sparkle in her eyes. “I understand.”

Vin knew she wasn’t just talking about his stomach and he felt his cheeks flush, saved further embarrassment with the arrival of their lunch.

They ate with little conversation and when the waiter took their plates, Vin put down more than enough money to cover the meal. He glanced around at the closeness of the other diners and stood, offering his hand. Their gazes locked and she silently took his hand and allowed him to take her to a secluded spot near a huge oak tree.

“You know where the meet is?” he asked, taking both of her hands and pulling her close so they could whisper.

“Yes.” She held his eyes and swallowed hard.

“Well? Where is it?”

“I need information first.”

Vin blinked. “What?”

“Vin, you have information I need. I will trade you. Isn’t that how it works?”

Vin took a half-step back. “Ronnie . . .”

She gripped his hands tighter. “I’m fighting too, Vin. I need to get into that house and I need information to do that.”

“It’s too dangerous.” He squeezed her fingers.

“I know how dangerous this is. I’ve seen it first hand, remember?” Ronnie’s anger flared and she threw his hands back at him and planted her fists on her hips. “I am not a China doll. I will get an audience with the Carniceros if it kills me, Vin. Many of my friends have already died. Children, women, young men - my future - it’s a war I intend to stop or die trying!”

Vin fought to keep his temper but when he looked into her eyes and realized her passion, all argument died in his throat. They were too much alike that way. He couldn’t keep her safe so the best he could do was arm her with truth. He glanced around to make sure they would not be overheard and grabbed her hand, pulling her close.

“I know a way, but you must promise to have your say and walk away. You hear me? I need you to be . . . away.”

She nodded, her eyes still smoldering. “I will try. That is all I can promise.”

Vin took a deep breath and chewed his lower lip a moment, hoping this mistake wouldn't haunt him later. “Tell Gustavo that Felix plans to be the sole heir to the Carnicero business. He and Zamora had Adrian killed. Gustavo is next. Arturo may already be gone because no one has seen him in over a month.”

Ronnie gasped in horror. “Is this the truth? How do you know?”

“It can be confirmed by Oscar Cruz, currently in Federal custody in the U.S. I am sure the Carniceros have connections enough to get confirmation.”

She gaped at Vin and he could see her mind working behind her eyes. “That should do it,” she muttered softly.

“I don’t know how you’ll get to Gustavo, though.”

“I do.”

Vin tipped his head aside. “You’ve been busy this morning.”

“Just trading information. That’s the way it’s done, no?” She smiled at him.

“Yeah, it is.” Vin shook his head in defeat. “Now, where is my meeting?”

Vin waited in the shadows at the edge of a park watching children play around a colorful water fountain. The cold drizzle ceased hours ago and sluggish clouds uncovered more blue sky every minute. He heard mothers and nannies warning the children away from the temptation of the waterfall, but small fingers still got wet.

Right on time, Vin saw the man from the previous night stroll to the far side of the water feature and stop to light a cigarette, placing a duffle bag on the ground to one side first. Vin turned up his coat collar and approached, coming up from behind. The man did not startle; instead, he spoke without turning around as soon as Vin was in hearing distance.

“Your target will arrive at the Cartel house at five o’clock. My employer will arrive in town at seven. That is your window. Zamora wants proof that Tiger’s Eye is out of the way before he goes to the mansion.”

“That’s a small window.”

“This is a lot of money.” The man took another hit on the cigarette. “The balance will be with Zamora. He will trade it for the proof.”

“He have something specific in mind? A scalp, maybe?”

The man chuckled darkly. “Tempting, but Tiger’s Eye wears a talisman around his neck. Zamora has seen it.”

“What’s it look like?”

“It is a glass vial with a spent bullet inside. He says it is testament of his cunning and skill.”

Vin frowned. He didn’t recall MacMillan wearing any jewelry at the shooting range.

The smoking man continued. “He says it’s the bullet that killed Marko Munos, which is the contract that made him partners in the Carnicero Cartel.”

Vin froze and his stomach turned. He fought to keep his cool as his thoughts raced. If that was true, and if there was still blood evidence on the bullet fragment, he could go home!

It took some effort to keep an even tone when he spoke again. “I will get proof.”

The man strolled away and Vin picked up the duffel, his mind whirling. That’s why the bullet in Denver didn’t have any of Munos' blood on it - someone tampered with the evidence. For the first time in a long, long time, hope awakened in Vin’s heart.

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