Chapter 27 - A Bump In The Road
Low clouds muted the late morning light and made the air thick. Ronnie jerked awake in complete confusion and for fleeting moments, forget where she was. The ache in her back from sleeping in the Jeep’s seat quickly put her thoughts in order and she looked to her right. Her passenger slumped against the door and she waved off a fat, black fly crawling on the red-black stain just below his left shoulder. A charge of fear made her fingers tingle.
“Vin?” She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. She cautiously checked the bandage. It was sticky and damp. “How are you?"
He didn’t move and Ronnie’s hand automatically moved to Vin’s cheek. She stroked the wild stubble with the backs of her fingers, jaw to temple, and her alarm vaulted with the heat she felt there. Moving quickly she twisted a water bottle open and dampened his hair and the neckline of his filthy t-shirt, and then patted his face with wet fingers.
Next, she jumped from the Jeep and answered nature’s call. Queasiness prevented any feeling of hunger, but she knew she had to eat something. When she returned to the vehicle, she unzipped the passenger side window to allow a breeze and stood by the door, talking as she worked to rouse Vin.
“We still have a ways to go,” Ronnie said as she dug for an energy bar in the back. “I hope I can find this Celia woman because I need help.” She tore the bar open and took a bite, frowning. “Why do these things always taste like mud?” As she ate, Ronnie gently raked Vin’s damp hair away from his face and studied the pinched, dirty lines of pain. She noticed her hand trembled.
It took a few mouthfuls of water to get the dry food down and dampened her patient’s hair again. Then she worked to get Vin to take a few sips. Her persistence roused him enough to swallow about a quarter bottle’s worth. When his heavy lids parted, revealing glazed, unfocused eyes, Ronnie gulped and her heart fluttered in fear. This was well beyond basic first aid. “Well,” she said with a quiver in her voice, “we better get going.”
Ronnie checked the vehicle over and decided to use the gas cans. She was glad for her decision when only a small amount remained in one can; it gave her time to look for a gas station. When she climbed in behind the steering wheel, she felt the lump of her cell phone crowed her hip. Once inside, she eased the device into her hand.
It was past eight. Ronnie winced - she’d slept longer than she’d intended. Looking at the phone again, the desire to call someone, anyone, was strong but she couldn’t think of anyone that could actually help. She glanced to Vin’s still form. Is this lonely feeling of hopelessness what he lived with all this time? How did he bear it?
Ronnie sighed. Determination to succeed flared and mentally steeled her, so she dropped the phone in the center console and started the engine with resolve. The closer she got to the border, the better his chances of survival.
The hour between 8:30 and 9:30 was the slowest sixty minutes Chris ever endured. When Ezra finally slipped into the office and Chris pushed from his desk chair, the remaining team members twitched and he realized they were as tense as he was.
“Ezra,” he snapped a bit more sharply than he intended. “What’s going on?”
Standish stopped at his desk, turning to face the others. He held his hands up, palms out. “I do not have as much as you would like, I am sure, but it seems to have been an action-packed night in Mexico City.”
Chris got right to the point. “Is Arturo Carnicero dead?”
“Yes, it seems so at this point.”
“You don’t know for sure?” Nathan asked.
“Unofficially, yes, he is, along with his son Felix. They were in the Cartel mansion when it burned to the ground last night.” He glanced at Chris’ pained expression. “It may be awhile until the bodies are identified, but there were plenty of witnesses, among them, an undercover C.I.A. agent who has been watching the Cartel family for months.”
Buck frowned. “Was he watching’ Vin, too?”
“When he could,” Ezra continued. “Confirming the conclusion of Mr. Tanner’s task was part of his assignment.”
“So he’s coming home?” JD’s hopeful tone caused the other’s to lean in with anticipation.
Ezra frowned. The air sizzled with tension. “I cannot say for sure.”
“What do you mean by that?” Chris snapped.
Ezra tipped his head to face his boss. “There was another casualty that puzzles the C.I.A. at the moment.”
“What’s that got to do with Vin?”
Bracing back against the edge of his desk, Ezra reached into an inner coat pocket. “Just outside the Carnicero compound gate, they found the body of one Robert MacMillan next to a bullet riddled Hummer. The cause of death is obvious.” He pulled out two photographs and handed them over to Larabee.
Chris snatched them from his hand. The first picture showed the body of the former Range master splayed on his back on the ground. The second, a close up of the dead man’s face, showed glazed eyes and a neat, red hole between his eyebrows.
Buck sidled over to his friend and craned his neck at the photos. “MacMillan. What the hell . . .”
JD’s fingers flew over his keyboard, its clackity-clack the only noise for a few seconds. “He retired not long after Vin was fired,” JD reported. “He was on my list to check, but there was nothing obvious -“
“He collected evidence at the scene,” Nathan said. “I remember him coming over to check on Vin.”
“Yeah,” JD agreed. “He’s retired to Belize - hey, remember Patrick Watson?”
Buck and Chris exchanged frowns.
“Forensics?” Josiah said from his desk in the corner. “He was at the scene, too.”
Bucks stood up straight. “He’s the guy that died in the car crash shortly after that, right? You found a big deposit in his account just before?”
“We assumed he tampered with the evidence,” JD said as he typed, “but both he and MacMillan sealed the bullet evidence envelope. I didn’t check the envelope photo before. I just read the paperwork.”
“They worked together,” Chris mused. “Then MacMillan killed him. There was paint transfer on Watson’s car, right? At the accident scene?”
“Yeah, but they assumed it was old. There were drugs in his blood. They concluded that Watson was intoxicated and that’s why he crashed.” JD’s fingers paused and he stared at the screen with wide eyes. “Damn.”
“What?” Buck said as he moved to JD’s side. Chris remained frozen, staring at the photographs.
“MacMillan’s got quite a hunk of money,” JD said.
Ezra cleared his throat, gaining everyone’s attention. “I believe if you delve further into Mr. MacMillan’s investments, you will find more than you expect.”
Chris’ eyes turned hard and crystal sharp. “Why?”
“It seems that the C.I.A. feels that MacMillan may have been Tiger’s Eye.”
“The assassin?” Josiah broke the moment of silence. “Brother Vin’s tangling with a dangerous crowd. Tiger’s Eye has been credited with some major kills. No one knows who he really is.”
Chris turned his attention to JD. “Find out all you can about MacMillan and those kills. It could clear Vin.”
“But didn’t the C.I.A. agree to clear Vin’s record?”
“Yes, but Vin needs this to come home to us. He needs proof in case he didn’t find any of his own.”
“I’m on it.”
Chris rubbed his eyes. “Givens said he hasn’t heard anything. We still don’t know where Vin is.”
“And he may still be in trouble,” Ezra said. “With this power vacuum comes opportunities. Mr. Tanner would be a great catch for anyone in either the Zamora or Carnicero Cartel. Mr. MacMillan’s murder is a good reason for revenge.”
“Revenge for what? Killing a murderer?”
“As you already know, Cartels are very close knit. Any individual deemed to be working against them is fair game. The Carniceros will want revenge and the Zamoras will want leverage. Vin offers both.”
Buck scrubbed his face. “Great.”
Chris shifted his jaw. “Then we’ll have to find him first.”
“You know, the FBI and U.S. Marshals may not be watching’ us anymore,” Josiah pointed out, “but the Cartels may be doing just that. We can’t tip our hand, Chris. We have to work as if we are still under surveillance.”
“Which means we stay clear of the border,” Chris finished, “but that doesn’t apply to Givens - he’s our ace up the sleeve.”
“We just have to figure out where Vin will show up. I think there are two possibilities,” JD said. “At the border where he left his motorcycle in Arizona or in California where we last saw him and met Givens.”
“Arizona,” Chris said with pointed certainty. “I’ll call Givens and fill him in. We may have to be his diversion.”
The hard lines of the team leader’s face made it clear that he was not happy with the role.
Chihuahua was the last substantial city before Juarez and Ronnie was worried.
So far, the drive had been, long, dusty and uncomfortably warm and although Vin did not seem to be any worse, his condition scared her. Difficult to rouse and alarmingly hot, Ronnie felt the pressure of being his sole guardian. The openness of the desert and light traffic so far made it easier, but now they had to pass through a city that had a multitude of eyes, all of which were under Alberto Zamora’s influence. Ronnie didn't know if Zamora wanted Vin, but that was the pressure of guardianship: Take no chances. Any kind of play confirming power was valuable to the Cartels, and Vin was a perfect target. She was altogether too familiar with the way Cartels functioned and the idea of her friend in their hands made her eyes burn with tears.
Beyond Chihuahua lay brutal desert. Both of them needed more than water and energy bars. Ronnie figured that just one stop for an electrolyte-infused drink was worth the risk, and if there was such a thing as an international capable burner phone, Chihuahua was the last possible place to get one.
She crossed the edge of the city late in the afternoon and pulled into the first alley she saw and parked. The engine popped and sizzled while Ronnie took a deep breath. Her hands, sweaty on the steering wheel, trembled. She was hot and exhausted, and the thought crossed Ronnie’s mind that she may not be thinking clearly because of it. A short giggled edge with hysteria escaped her lips.
“Come on, woman, get it together,” she muttered to herself before exiting the Jeep.
Ronnie circled around to Vin’s side, unzipped the flimsy door and tried to look at him with new eyes - how would he draw attention? She rolled her eyes at the stupidity of the question. The huge, sticky stain on his shirt had to go.
“I am sorry, my friend, but I have to do this.”
It was not easy to remove the shirt. Not only did she have to wrestle it over his head, it also stuck to the poorly bandaged wound like fly paper and her actions roused him into awareness. He blinked at her with fevered, pain filled eyes. His one hand still clutched the small vial as it had through the entire trip, but the other moved unsteadily toward the hidden knife against his shoulder blade. She stopped to reassure him.
“No, Vin, it’s me, Ronnie. You’re safe. You’re safe with me.”
Something shifted in his eyes as he tried to focus on hers. “Juarez?” he rasped.
She smiled, but her throat clenched. She cleared it before talking. “Not yet, but we are close. I need to clean you up. Can I use your knife?” Ronnie touched the handle, moving slowly.
Vin nodded, fighting to stay aware. Ronnie removed the knife and cut off the rest of the shirt, biting her lip at the gore underneath. She did not take off the bandages. Pulling a shirt from a bag in the back, she cut it into strips, marveling at the sharp edge of the knife. Vin helped as much as he could with the re-wrap and Ronnie was pleased that the new bandage on top of the old ones remained clean.
Next, she slipped another shirt over him with the injured arm underneath, covering his full fist against his stomach. Ronnie fitted the knife into his other hand and pushed his arm down to his side so the blade rested along his thigh.
“Just in case,” she told him. Vin, fighting to stay awake, smiled. Ronnie warmed at the expression. It reaffirmed her reasons for involving herself in this madness. “Can you sit up straighter?”
She helped him reposition, wincing at his pained groans. Once arranged, she combed his hair into some semblance of order with her fingers. The action relaxed him and he croaked his thanks. His eyes softened.
“You’re still too hot and it worries me.” She gave him some water and he managed an entire bottle, along with part of an energy bar. He frowned at the taste. “Mud. I know. Sorry. I can get you something else since I have to stop anyway.”
The request came a micro-second after the offer and it made her laugh. He tiredly grinned again and her spirits lifted. She patted his cheek. “That sounds like something really bad for you.”
She rolled her eyes and he chuckled shortly before hissing in pain and squeezing his eyes shut.
“I’ll see what I can do.” Although she kept her tone light, worry slammed home once again as she closed the side panel. Ronnie pushed fear aside and settled at her place behind the wheel. Ronnie glanced at him when she twisted the key. “Try not to look dead, alright?”
“No promises.” Vin’s voice was a pale, dry shadow of what it should be and the planes of his face were sallow and sickly. His unshaven face helped cover most of it, leaving only the sooty sashes under his eyes visible to the world.
“Not funny, Vin,” Ronnie answered sadly, shoving the car into gear and focusing her attention on the road; she couldn’t look in his eyes right now. “You can’t leave me now.”
Ronnie eased the Jeep out of the alley and blended into the traffic of the main road looking for the one stop that would offer both sustenance and, hopefully, burner phones. She would be very happy when Chihuahua was behind them.