Chapter 22 - Confirmation
Ronnie's afternoon was torment. Her mind whirled with Vin's information, making her comb her memories for any clue that would have predicted the behavior of Felix Carnicero.
She remembered playing with the boys at a young age, before they left for Mexico City. Gustavo was younger but they had the same teacher because he skipped a grade. Adrian was her age and rarely in class. Felix was older and although she remembered all of them, they were outside her circle of acquaintances and most of what she knew of them she learned from Gustavo and her own observations.
Ronnie remembered Adrian as being the wild one and he always got hurt due to crazy stunts. Gustavo's mother spent a lot of her time rounding him up and patching his wounds; Ronnie recalled one time when the woman apologized profusely to another woman in the Carnicero kitchen while Ronnie and Gustavo ate a snack at the dinner table. Apparently, Adrian convinced another boy to jump off a roof with him.
As for Felix, Ronnie remembered him as aloof and always on the sidelines, watching. She was a little afraid of him because he usually had a scowl on his face and Gustavo made it a point to avoid him. That brother had a dangerous reputation but he did not appear to be out of control like Adrian. Ronnie wondered now if there was physical abuse among the brothers.
As for their father Arturo, Ronnie never recalled seeing him at all. Their mother was very kind, but seemed harried and worried. She died a few years after leaving Tijuana and Ronnie never found out the cause.
Gustavo was quiet and smart, excelled in mathematics and did not get the same amount of attention as Felix or Adrian. Ronnie missed him when he moved away. They crossed paths a handful of times in Tijuana since then when Gustavo passed through on business.
Ronnie shook her head with a sigh in an effort to clear her mind. She pulled out the remains of her cash, noting that she needed to make headway soon – she had less than a week's worth of money before she had to return home. Counting out a few bills for a meal, she tucked the rest away and turned to the mirror to fix her hair.
Tonight, she would approach one of the Cartel members she knew was in town and request a meeting with Gustavo because she had information. She practiced the request in her head to make sure she didn't give up too much – she had to convince him that this was for Gustavo's ears only, and that task would not be easy.
Finally, she was ready. Ronnie took a bracing breath and then snatched her colorful shawl from the bed, throwing it over her shoulders as she left her small room.
The humidity of the late afternoon made Ronnie’s clothes stick to her skin but the walk was comfortable. Once she reached the main plaza, she visually scanned the business fronts for familiar faces. The dinner crowd gathered and clusters of people crowded the sidewalk chatting and laughing. She weaved between them at a pace that appeared leisurely but her heart clutched with urgency.
Near the end of the pavement, she finally spotted one of the men she knew to be a Cartel bodyguard standing outside a café door; it was the only eatery without a line waiting outside. Ronnie paused, adjusted her hair and shawl, and approached with a lifted chin and determined eyes.
The man watched her approach and once he realized the he was her destination, he shifted his body to face her and let his arms dangle loosely at his sides. She stopped at the edge of his personal space.
“I need to speak with Gustavo. Alone.”
The man cocked his head, considering. Ronnie glanced aside into the small restaurant and saw Gustavo sitting against a far wall chatting with a waiter. The Carnicero brother was alone at the table, much to her surprise. This was a perfect opportunity. She took another step and looked back at the guard.
“Mr. Carnicero wishes to eat in private,” the man said.
“He knows me. I have information - “
“Mr. Carnicero does not wish to be disturbed.”
Ronnie scowled and adjusted the grip on her shawl. “It is important.” She considered telling him something to convey the threatening nature of her warning, but then she realized that none of the Cartel bodyguards could be trusted. Any one of them, or even all of them, could be under Felix’s control.
She moved instinctively and without warning, grabbed the café door and stepped inside before the guard reacted. Gustavo’s head turned her direction at the noise.
“Gustavo!” she called, meeting his eyes immediately. The guard clamped down on her arm one step beyond the threshold and she cringed at the sudden pain. Two more men appeared from the depths of the eatery.
“Enough!” Gustavo shot to his feet and the guards froze, but did not release her. He glared at the guard holding Ronnie’s arm. “Release her. Go back outside.”
The guard did as he was told, giving her a steely glare that gave her a chill before going back outside.
“Out of my way!” Gustavo snapped as she shouldered by the waiter and one of the guards. His features softened as he approached Ronnie and he extended his arm to cup her elbow. “Veronica. I am so sorry. . “
“I’m all right,” she breathed, trying to control her sudden trembling. Her heart pounded and she worked up a smile when faced him. “Really, I am all right.”
“Join me. I insist.” He led her to his table and pulled out a chair. The waiter hurried to fetch another setting for the table and had it in place by the time Gustavo retook his seat. Ronnie saw that he had a half glass of red wine and a small plate of fruit and cheese. He poured wine into the glass that appeared in front of her out of nowhere. “This is just an appetizer, courtesy of the house. Please, help yourself.”
Ronnie lifted the glass and noticed how the liquid quivered. It took a moment of determination to quiet the shaking before taking a sip. There was a hint of berries and pepper, and the liquid gave her throat pleasant warmth when she swallowed. “Thank you.”
Gustavo leaned back, smiling, and took a sip from his glass. “Veronica Cerritos. It has been a while.”
“Yes,” she replied, working to slow her racing heartbeat.
A slight furrow appeared between his eyebrows as he thought. “I do not believe I have ever seen you outside our little hometown,” he said. “First time in Mexico City?”
“Yes,” she said again, annoyed at sounding like a broken record. A flutter of anger did much to strengthen her resolve.
“So,” he said, leaning in. “What brings you here?”
Ronnie glanced pointedly at the security guards that hovered closer to the table than made her comfortable. “Um, it is good to see you again, Gustavo. Really.” And she meant it. She’d always liked his deep voice and the way it sounded so calm no matter what was actually going on around them. He had been that way, even as a young boy.
He noticed her discomfort and shooed the men away with a scowl and a wave of his hand. The men stepped back, faces unreadable.
Ronnie took another sip of the wine and lifted a piece of cheese from the plate he offered.
“Better?” he asked with a tiny smile.
“Yes, thank you.” She put down her glass and leaned in. “I am sorry about Adrian. Really.”
He shrugged as a wash of sorrow crossed his face. “Me too. He was lost a long time ago, though. He is finally at peace.”
She wondered about that for a second, and then continued. “Gustavo, I have to tell you something that you may not believe or want to hear. I want you to know first that this information can be confirmed, and I am telling you to protect you.” Gustavo’s eyes shuttered, becoming unreadable. Ronnie knew at that second that she had to be entirely truthful with him if he was going to listen, really listen. “I will admit, there is another reason, actually. I want something in return. I want to make a deal with your family.”
“And why should my family make such a deal?”
The flatness of his voice carried disappointment that made Ronnie flush. She sounded just like any other greedy Cartel associate and she did not blame him for his wariness. She leaned in and connected with his eyes, praying that he would see the truth of her words.
“I want the violence to end in Tijuana, Gustavo. This bickering, this . . . evil . . . is destroying everything good about my home. Everything. It has to stop and you are my last hope.”
Gustavo’s eyes softened with that and a touch of amusement traced his lips. “You have always loved that place,” he said softly. “And I can see in your eyes that it is the basis of why you are here in this ugly city.” He paused, considering, and tipped his head aside as he regarded her. “You are the best thing in that town, you know. I have always admired you for your devotion.”
Ronnie felt her body relax and she took another sip from her glass. “But you think it’s for naught, don’t you? Like sweeping sand from a beach?”
He chuckled and shook head, ducking it downward for a second. “Your pureness is refreshing.” He spoke so quietly, Ronnie barely heard it.
She smiled a sad smile and waited to see what he would do. Gustavo watched her quietly, absentmindedly twisting his wine glass back and forth on the crisp, white tablecloth. “I can only control my actions,” he finally said. “I can make no promises for my family.”
“Fair enough,” she replied. “Gustavo, I know who is responsible for Adrian’s death and you are the next target.” Pursing his lips, Gustavo failed to look impressed. He just looked sad, and slightly puzzled. She took it as her cue to continue. “I know you think that American agent shot him, but he didn’t. You also think he shot Marko Munos, but he didn’t do that, either. It was a plan to set the agent up and it worked.”
Now, Gustavo looked skeptical. “You know this American. He worked with you in Tijuana. How do you know he isn’t lying?”
Ronnie shook her head and reached across the table to rest one hand on top of his, stilling the wine glass. “Vin isn’t who I am talking about. Oscar Cruz can confirm what I have to say. He’s in custody -“
“- in U.S. Federal holding, awaiting trial. I know this. Alberto Zamora did this?”
“Not alone.” Ronnie took a breath. This was much harder than she’d anticipated. “Gustavo, Felix ordered Tiger’s Eye to kill Adrian. You are next on his list, along with your father.”
The guards immediately stepped closer, their hands on the butts of their handguns. Ronnie’s heart raced again, alarmed at the number of guns that suddenly appeared. She froze, even as Gustavo snatched away his hand and pushed back in his chair.
“Please,” Ronnie said. “Please, I said you wouldn’t want to hear this! I have no reason to lie, Gustavo. Why would I lie? You know me!”
Gustavo’s steely glare chilled her to the bone, but she didn’t dare move. He rose, slowly standing until he looked down on her. Ronnie held the look, willing back her urge to bolt. She forced her hands open and rested both palms on the table to still their renewed shaking. She’d forgotten how frightening any of the Carniceros looked when angry.
A thousand emotions swirled through Gustavo’s eyes, pushing anger aside. She could see his mind working, working, working; somehow, his face remained unreadable but his eyes were very open. Several long seconds passed and she counted his breaths, his speedy rate nearly matched hers. Finally, after an adrenalin heated eternity of moments went by, she saw his eyes flick to the bodyguards and she saw trust crumble right before her eyes. He pulled out his cell phone and spoke as he dialed, keeping his back to the wall.
“Leave us,” he said to the guards. “Now!”
The three men traded glances before standing back and letting their hands fall to their sides. With great reluctance clear in their every line, they moved back and out of hearing distance.
“They did not hear me,” Ronnie whispered. “They were too far -“
“Quiet,” Gustavo snapped. He stepped away and had a short, whispered conversation on the phone before disconnecting and slipping the device into his pocket. He stood with his back to her, hands on his hips and completely still. Eventually, his arms dropped and he returned to the table, sitting down with a stiff back.
“You will not leave until I confirm this, Veronica. If you are lying . . .” he ran his hand through his hair.
“I’m not. I’m sorry. I didn’t know how -“
“Let’s not talk about this now,” he said with fresh sorrow. “Let us have a nice meal.”
“Which could be my last,” she read in his face. She smiled sadly, certain that she couldn’t swallow anything at the moment. Her throat clenched with sadness for him and his loss. If he had been a boy with a different last name all those years ago in Tijuana, things would be so much different right now. She grieved for him. “Okay,” she croaked, nodding. “Sure.”