Chapter 23 - Poised For Action

Felix Carnicero reclined in the chair at the head of the massive oak table and sighed. The eleven other chairs surrounding the table were empty, but he did not feel neglected in any way as the server and maid made sure his coffee cup was full and his appetite sated. They whisked away the dishes and met his every need before retiring to the kitchen when the Jefe rose and excused them with a flick of his wrist.

He moved to the window and looked out over the vast yard, green against the natural brown of the surrounding hills. Water here was plentiful if you had enough money for a well, and Felix had six. The lush lawn, surrounded by thick, ornamental hedges trimmed into rigid rectangles and perfect circles. Felix enjoyed this compound - it was a peaceful respite from the madness beyond the walls and a perfect reminder of the power to come. Only his father, Arturo Carnicero, was in his way.

Joyful barking, muted by the thick glass of his home, caught his attention and he looked far to one side. He could barely see the tails of a pair of dogs, but it was clear they were intent on something. Felix wandered from his dining room to the wide outside veranda, passing through massive walls of glass that parted at a touch. He pulled a cigar from his breast pocket and lit it as he walked, turning a corner to find some of his men on the stone patio where they usually waited for any other orders before going home for the night.

Felix moved toward them, lording over the small party with simple command presence. Obviously older than the half-dozen men scattered over the roomy patio, the earned lines and inflicted scars that mapped Felix’s tanned, square face summed up his life philosophy - work hard, fight for your place and dominate those that dare to function in your world.

The patio was an extension of the hacienda’s elegant great room, separated by the same floor to ceiling, bullet proof glass walls that embraced the dining area. The flagstone tiled, outdoor area pushed out to a low wall boundary that curved like a pond’s edge with no sharp corners or angles. A fire pit blazed at the north end and comfortable outdoor chairs sat in loose groupings.

Felix worked the dampened end of the Cuban with his lips, causing the cherry embers at the opposite end to flare as he studied the men with dark, unreadable eyes. It was near sunset and the long, cool shadows dotting the warm stone did little to dampen the younger men’s chatter. Beyond the low wall, four bulldozer-shaped dogs toyed with a terrified cat.

Felix heard the men betting amongst themselves on which dog would kill the cat. For now, the animals were entertained with the slow torture. After one dog - the oldest and largest of the four - caught the wretched creature, it held it down, allowing the other dogs to tease, nip and otherwise torment the prey. After a few minutes, they released the cat only to catch it again to entertain the younger dogs.

Money flashed between the excited men. Felix watched them and considered, and then stretched his back. They cheered and Felix shifted his eyes to the dogs as the frazzled cat bolted yet again. The elder dog held back, allowing one of the younger pack mates to dart past and overtake the exhausted creature. One dog clamped his powerful jaws around the cat and gave it a vicious shake. When he released his catch, it fell, lifeless, to the manicured lawn. Disappointed, the other dogs nudged it a few times before plucking it up and engaging in a happy game of tug of war.

Cheers and groans emanated from the observers. Money shuffled between hands with lots of back-slapping. Felix strolled toward them, his attention on the dogs. When he was close to the men, they quieted and watched him with lowered eyes. More than one of them flinched as their boss casually pulled a large hand gun from his custom carved, leather shoulder holster and raise it to the romping dogs, firing one shot that rang their ears. Felix holstered in a smooth, practiced motion, stopping a few feet from the group. Frowning, he removed the cigar from his lips and rolled it between his fingers, studying it. The dog that put the cat out of its misery sprawled on the grass, dead.

The men stood stock still for a few, long seconds, glancing between their boss and the dead dog, now uninterested in the remaining pack that continued to frolic with the feline body, tossing it happily between them.

Finally, one man spoke. “Shall I bury the, um, body, Jefe?”

After a moment, Felix shook his head, his attention on the now dying cigar. “No, leave it be.”

Another man, the one that profited on the dead dog, sounded perplexed when he spoke. “May I ask why you shot him? He was a fine animal, Sir.”

Felix Carnicero flicked the remains of his cigar over the low wall and onto the grass. He felt his shirt pockets, frowning, and then smiled slightly when he located a new Cuban in the interior pocket of his leather jacket. The men waited as he lighted the new cigar and closed his eyes with pleasure at the first puff.

He turned to go and then paused, allowing a glance toward the dark lump on the grass as hot, blue smoke escaped his lips and drifted skyward.

“He killed too quickly.”

Explanation given, Felix strolled back into his hacienda a few minutes before his last appointment of the day. Once inside the house, Felix raised an eyebrow at his waiting attendant before glancing at his Rolex. The appointment was early and his attendant knew how Felix hated any glitch in his routine - the attendant looked nervous. It amused Felix. His power over others showed in so many ways.

“What?” Felix finally snapped at the nearly simpering man.

“There’s someone here to see you, sir.”

“I know that. Show him to my office.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tiger’s Eye was early so Felix smiled at the idea of making him wait.

The moment he put his foot in the stirrup and mounted, Vin fell into a single-minded, mission state of mind and pointed the horse’s nose to the muddy hills. The sure-footed creature showed more bone than Vin liked so he’d paid a higher rate than what would be considered reasonable to rent the animal from a local family. He smirked, pleased that C.I.A. money was actually helping a family. He planned to give them more upon the animal’s return.

Vin reined in the solid-tempered bay at the closest ridge to the Carnicero mansion and dismounted. He tied him to a stout Manzanita tree with a kind word. The animal, the complete opposite of Peso in every way, settled immediately with a forlorn sigh, complacent with its lot in life. Vin pulled his rifle from the saddle sheath and automatically checked it over.

The horse hitched a hind foot as his eyes drooped to catch a nap while Vin prowled the ground seeking the best place to set up. Finally satisfied, Vin rested his rifle on a tripod and threw out a padded mat to lie on. He set up a spotter’s scope alongside the rifle and checked every nook of the compound while he still had daylight.

As the orange ball of the sun hung well above the farthest mountain top, he watched Robby MacMillan arrive at the compound in a whirl of dust behind the wheel of an obscenely shiny, black Hummer. When the vehicle stopped at the entry gate, Vin checked his watch - 4:45. Tiger’s Eye was early.

Vin knew his primary target was supposed to be Arturo Carnicero but he reasoned that with Mac’s removal, Arturo would be easier to find because in all his surveillance, he’d never seen the man. He’d speculated if Arturo was still alive but nothing he’d turned up said he was dead. It was a mystery, really, and the information he’d received from Ezra came to the same conclusion, which explained the C.I.A.’s interest. Confirmation either way would satisfy them.

Vin watched and waited for a clear shot at MacMillan, but the Hummer circled to the far side of the house and well out of sight. For now, it came down to simply waiting and the well-schooled, ex-Ranger had plenty of patience.

If sorrow could be measured, Ronnie saw more than a single share in Gustavo’s eyes when he answered his phone at the table. They’d shared a bottle of wine and two servings of appetizers, neither of them able to stomach more than that while waiting for confirmation of her information.

The bleak report that registered in Gustavo’s eyes was brief, quickly replaced with something much, much harder which shot a quiver of fear up Ronnie’s spine. This was the Carnicero part of Gustavo’s genetic make-up clicking into action and Ronnie knew that whatever connection they had would always be tainted by this genetic reality; they could never be anything more than they currently were - acquaintances with a what-could-have-been history.

Gustavo’s fingers flew over the keys of his smart-phone for what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only a minute or two. Then Gustavo stood, his chair shove back with a gritty scrape of wood on tile, and he waved the restaurant owner over with his hand. The other hand pulled his wallet from his pocket. When the proprietor arrived at the table, Gustavo pulled out a fat stack of bills.

“I need the internet access in your office. Your place is closed for the night. This should be enough to cover your expenses and your silence. Go home.”

The slight man took the money and bowed nervously as he backed out of Gustavo’s way. He snapped at the waiter to lock the doors and the small staff disappeared through the kitchen.

Gustavo moved away from the table and stopped in the middle of the establishment, signaling Ronnie to stay at the table. When he called his bodyguards from the recesses of the room, Ronnie’s mouth went dry at the figure Gustavo cut - it was both frightening and awe-inspiring at the same time. A leader of men appeared from nowhere.

“I don’t know where your loyalties were when we entered this place,” he started, his hand resting on the butt of a gun at his hip that Ronnie hadn’t noticed. “But hear me now: I control the Carnicero fortune. From this moment on, neither Felix nor my father have access to any funds. Whatever was promised is now void. You will follow me. Understand?”

Ronnie watched in morbid fascination as a silent conversation carried between the four guards through their eyes. Finally, one stepped forward and gave Gustavo a nod. “We understand, Sir. What are your orders?”

“Watch the doors and prepare the car. We will leave in twenty minutes.” The men spread out, and one disappeared to check the back door. Gustavo’s hard gaze turned to Ronnie and immediately softened. “You spoke the truth and I am grateful.” He reached out to her and Ronnie moved without thought, taking his hand. “You have my deepest appreciation, Veronica.” He smiled a sad smile. “I know the weight of my family’s name so I will leave it up to you if you go with me now or return to Tijuana. Either way, I will do what I can go honor your request.” Gustavo watched her with sad eyes.

Unable to speak, Ronnie just nodded and squeezed his hand before stepping away. She saw understanding in his slow nod just before his eyes shuttered once again. When she turned to the door, he heard Gustavo order her safe return to her apartment before he disappeared in the restaurant office.

Clutching her shawl close, Ronnie rode in the car wondering what she’d set into motion and how it would affect Vin.

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