Chapter 26 - Homeward Bound
Relieved that Vin concentrated on moving his feet instead of talking, Ronnie wondered about the man she helped. She’d heard all the rumors about Vin being an assassin but the violent ideal did not fit the person she knew. That idea skewed crazily once she and Omar found Tanner’s cache.
Vin, barely conscious by then, made sure that the various weapons he’d stashed were broken down and scattered in the rough terrain. Ronnie was not sure what was more disturbing - that Vin had these weapons or that Omar, a boy barely in his teens, knew how to break them down.
It was Omar’s idea to bury the ammo in the creek bed where they would eventually soak into uselessness. He covered the spot with rocks so the pathetic creek flow wouldn’t carry the items away. Vin described where his final rifle lay and she chose to put aside the alarm she felt when she realized that it was in position to cover the Carnicero mansion. Omar promised to retrieve and dismantle it as soon as possible.
Ronnie worked on Vin’s wound while he issued orders to Omar, but she knew immediately that this was more than she could handle. She suspected that the bullet was still in there, lodged in the area of his shoulder blade. With firm packing, the wound’s flow reduced to a manageable ooze.
“No hospital. Juarez.” Vin muttered before passing out, collapsing like a deflated balloon.
Ronnie allowed Omar to help load Vin in the camouflaged Jeep before shooing him away with a wad of cash she found on her patient. Vin’s last words drove home the danger of the moment: Cartels loved retaliation and Tanner was the only viable target in the area even if he wasn’t directly responsible for this mess. His tie to America was reason enough to enflame paranoia.
With Vin safely stowed, Ronnie drove north, allowing only one glance back at the burning Carnicero compound. An orange glow stained the surrounding hills and black smoke blotted out emerging stars. She knew she’d never return.
Once the lights of Mexico City and all its influences disappeared in the rear view mirror, Ronnie allowed her thoughts on the consequences of all this to surface. So many unknowns; the vacuum of power wouldn’t last. Zamora and Gustavo were sure to challenge each other, she knew, and she selfishly hoped they kept it out of Tijuana. It was possible. She needed to get home and prepare.
Vin shifted in his seat and gasped. Ronnie rested a hand on his forearm and he turned narrow, pain-filled eyes in her direction.
“You couldn’t stash a Mercedes?” She had to speak up because of the wind noise. “It will be a rough trip in this car.” She tipped her head to indicate the canvas doors and roof.
Vin managed a weak smile. “Sorry,” he muttered huskily.
Ronnie handed him a bottle of water. “Drink.”
He drank, eyes drifting closed at the joy of wet coolness, pausing only after half the bottle was gone and asked, “He’s dead?”
“That guy with the hole in his forehead? Yeah.”
The Jeep wiggled within its lane when Ronnie pulled the necklace over her head. She held it up and saw instant relief in Vin’s eyes.
Vin took it from her and clenched it in a bloody fist which he then rested over his heart. He fell silent until he shifted in the seat a few minutes later. “Shit!” he hissed.
“That’ll teach you to move. I went through a lot to stop that bleeding.” Ronnie hoped her alarm did not carry in her words.
Vin chuffed then puffed a few times to control the pain. “Look,” he finally said in a tight voice. “I have to get to Juarez. There’s a woman there, Celia Guerrero. She’ll help.”
Ronnie glanced at her passenger, the growing dark masking Vin’s face. “Can she get you home, Vin? Because I’m not leaving until you are home. Until you are across the border and safe.”
“No. I’m driving so I’m in charge.” She attempted a glare. It fell flat. “Can she get you home?”
“I wouldn’t ask her to.” Vin groaned and pressed his hand on his wound. “But she can get word to someone that can.”
“Good enough.” Ronnie gripped the steering wheel harder and checked the speedometer. They didn’t need to garner any attention at this point.
“Ronnie, if . . . if things go south . . .”
“Don’t say that.”
“I need to tell you some names. Please.”
She clenched her jaw in an attempt to lessen the burn growing in her eyes. The adrenalin rush from the afternoon was gone and all she felt was shaky and faded. She wasn’t sure how much more she could handle. “Vin . . .”
“No, listen. Raylan Givens - he’s a U.S. Marshal. He can get me home. Chris Larabee . . .” Vin paused with a pained hiss. “Larabee’s an A.T.F. agent in Denver. Let him know . . .” Vin swore softly.
“Juarez. Celia Guerrero. Raylan Givens. Larabee. Got it, now shut up.” When there was no reply, sarcastic or otherwise, she glanced over. Vin’s closed eyes and face were frighteningly lax and his body slumped to one side. The fist that held the necklace, however, remained tightly closed, but his hand had fallen to the seat. “Vin?”
Ronnie risked reaching over to feel his neck and finding the pulse wasn’t a relief because it just made the distance to Juarez seem as long as a trip to the moon.
Fighting all instincts to pull over Ronnie pushed on and mapped the trip in her mind. With each mile away from Mexico City, the number of cars lessened and it was close to midnight before she considered stopping. Traffic was sparse now and the night was good cover, and she was beyond worried because Vin hadn’t uttered a word since giving her that list of names.
She spotted a side road and took it, stopping when she was sure they were not visible from the highway. She turned off the headlights and swore softly when she realized that the only interior lighting was from the dashboard display. Ronnie ran around to the passenger side and searched the glove box, finding a mini LED flashlight. She clicked it on and turned it to Vin’s face.
He was warm when she cupped his cheek with the palm of her hand. Ronnie combed his hair back with her fingers and confirmed that there was no head injury. Deciding to check him over, she ran her hand down the nape of his neck and upper back, under his clothes, and bumped a hard object. Her fingers carefully ran over it - it was a knife in a sheath.
Ronnie gulped, hardened her resolve and continued her exam, relieved that she did not find anything else. In the weak light of the tiny flashlight, the rose of blood on Vin’s bandage looked black. She toyed with the idea of removing the three layers of shirts Vin wore because they were so dirty, but the thought of disturbing the bandage nixed the thought. She left it alone. The fever, though, was a problem she had to deal with now.
She checked the back of the Jeep and found several bottles of water, a meager amount of food and a pair of full, red, three-gallon gas cans - it wasn’t enough to get to Juarez, which was another twelve hours on the road. Ronnie’s optimism now outweighed her fears; one or two stops to refuel were all she had to think about, along with driving carefully to not draw attention.
The screw top of the water bottle fought for a second and burned her hand, but Ronnie won the battle and tossed the lid aside.
“Vin.” She gently patted his face, biting her lip with worry at the heat. “Vin, you have to drink.” Alternately stroking and patting his cheek, Vin’s eyes finally fluttered and he groaned. Ronnie softly urged him into awareness and he blinked in an effort focus his eyes. The normally intense blue was foggy. “Drink some water.”
His lips fumbled on the spout of the bottle but he managed to swallow the offering. She patiently helped him to drink half of the water and he whispered “Thanks” before drifting off again. She got back in the Jeep and hit the road, maintaining the nursing routine through the night.
An hour or so before dawn, Ronnie’s eyes drooped heavily and she knew she had to stop and rest. Taking the next off ramp, she drove to the first side road that led to a dark, unlit area, and found a wide oak. Carefully easing the Jeep under the low-hanging branches, she turned off the motor and checked on her passenger. Vin’s dry skin was alarmingly hot.
Exhausted, Ronnie dampened his clothes and hair with the dwindling water supply, answered the call of nature in the near-by bushes, then crawled behind the steering wheel and immediately fell asleep.
Chris Larabee tugged at the collar of his dress shirt and glared at the glowing elevator numbers. His lips, a thin, hard line, frowned as he worked to loosen the strangling tie and shirt button beneath. He didn’t notice that the four other passengers pressed against the walls to distance themselves from his irritation.
One floor below his, the car stopped and the doors slid open. Buck Wilmington’s blue eyes quickly scanned the situation and he stepped inside with an amused grin, tucking a folder under his arm. Chris gave him a pointed glare. Buck chuckled.
“There’s a real ambiance around you, huh, Chris?”
Chris grunted and aimed his annoyance at the row of numbers again. He stomped from the elevator at the next stop with Buck on his heels. Seemingly oblivious to his boss’ bad mood, Buck caught up and strolled alongside whistling a jaunty tune and offering warm greetings to the support staff they met along the way.
Buck’s carefree attitude fueled Chris’ bad mood. Since they’d last seen Vin, Chris felt ungrounded and disconnected; a part of himself that he couldn’t define was missing in action and it was unsettling. The rest of the team appeared to be fine, but Chris knew better. The recently empty desk was testament - the fourth sniper replacement bailed just yesterday. He glanced at the desk every day when he stepped in the office, just as he did this moment. The void pained him.
JD’s excited call was like a poke at a tender bruise. Chris stopped and Buck’s annoying whistle sputtered to silence. “What?” Chris snapped, his hands resting on his hips, fingers clenching the black dress belt.
“Something’s happened! I’m not sure what, but the bugs are gone.” The fingers of JD’s left hand flew over his keyboard as the right hand moved the computer mouse around. His eyes were intent on the monitor.
“What?” Buck replied. He moved toward JD first, breaking Chris’ shock as he followed.
“What about the phones?” Chris asked sharply.
JD tapped a few more commands. “Gone. We’re clear.”
Buck turned to Chris and a thousand silent questions exchanged between them.
“And, here - look at this!” JD twisted his monitor so Chris and Buck could see. The screen title read The F.B.I.’s Top Ten Most Wanted. Vin’s photograph was gone from the gallery.
“Looks like our wayward lamb got the job done.” Josiah somehow moved to Chris’ shoulder unnoticed which was quite a feat for a man his size.
Chris looked toward Nathan. His eyes were wide with hope. “Get a hold of Ezra, Nate. Have him check his sources. Buck, my office.”
Chris strode quickly into his office and closed the door. “We need to contact Givens and see what he’s heard.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “I hate this. Where is he? What happened?”
“If there’s one thing I’m sure about, Stud, it’s that Junior didn’t finish this quietly. We just need to keep our ears open.” Buck reached out and grabbed Chris’ arm and gave it a shake. “I know patience ain’t your thing but that’s all we got at the moment. Hang in there.”
Larabee stilled, displeasure smoldering his eyes smoky-green.