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San José, Costa Rica
David Claridge Cole felt the jet losing altitude, but he did not stir. He sat, eyes closed, his chest rising and falling heavily from the change of pressure within the descend ing aircraft. The set of his strong jaw and the vertical lines between his eyes marred the normally attractive face of the musician-turned-business man. He wanted to be anywhere but on a plane flying to Costa Rica in the middle of June.
A slow, crooked smile replaced his frown as he recalled the prior evening's festivities. It had been a long time, too long, since he had enjoyed a night filled with music, sumptuous food, and celebrating that lasted until pinpoints of light from the rising sun pierced the cover of the night time sky.
He had been the best man in a wedding party, and the reveling following the ceremony had reminded him of how much he missed a life-style that had been a never-ending party. As the percussionist for the popular jazz band Night Mood, he lived nights and days measured by recording sessions, live performances, and promotional parties and tours. He'd been on a dizzying merry-go-round that he never wanted to get off.
But it all stopped when his older brother Martin resigned as CEO of ColeDiz International Ltd. to embark on a political career. He had been expected to take over the responsibility of the day-to-day operation of the family-owned export company. He'd even surprised himself, once he learned all of the laws and regulations regarding export tariffs as well as environmental sanctions and controls.
He'd assumed control of ColeDiz at twenty-seven and now, at thirty-six, he wanted out. Running ColeDiz for nine years had offered him the experience he needed for a future undertaking. It wasn't that he minded being a businessman. However, he didn't want to have to concern himself with the fluctuating prices of bananas or coffee. What he wanted to do was focus his energies on discovering new musical talent. The idea of setting up his own recording company had come to him more than a year ago, and the notion grew stronger each time he boarded the corporate jet for a business trip.
His last meeting with Interior Minister Raul Cordero-Vega had not gone well. What should have been a civil meeting ended with a hostile verbal confrontation. David hadn't waited for the corporate jet to fly him back to Florida, but had taken a commercial flight instead. Vega had threatened to increase the tariffs on bananas for the second time in less than a decade, because he claimed the plastic casings used to protect the fruit during harvesting were found in the digestive tracts of turtles washed up along the Costa Rican coast line. Environmentalists were pressuring the government to fine or expel the foreign-owned companies, and Vega's solution was to double the already enormously high tariffs.
Martin Cole's last act as CEO had been to transfer many of the ColeDiz ventures to Belize, while leaving the conglomerate's most productive banana plantation near Puerto Limón. And after conferring with Martin and his father Samuel, David was given the go-ahead to negotiate the sale of their one remaining Costa Rican business enterprise.
He opened his eyes, his smile widening. This was to be his last trip to the Central American country. Under another set of circumstances he would have enjoyed the lush nation filled with more than fifty active volcanoes, because the region was beautiful and so were its people. They were a warm, polite, and friendly exotic mix of native Indians, Spanish, and people of African descent.
Estimat ing it would take him less than two weeks to conclude his business dealings with Vega, he felt some of his resentment waning as the sight of the San José airport came into view.
Pain, frustration, and fatigue were clearly etched on the face of Interior Minister Raul Cordero-Vega, aging the man. Two weeks before, anyone glancing at the tall, erect, graying man would not have taken him for sixty-two. Now he appeared to be ten years older. That morning he'd received a telephone call telling him that his only child, a son, had been arrested and charged with drug traffick ing and the murder of a United States DEA agent. This bit of news had torn his world asunder.
Gabriel Diego Vega was locked away in a U.S. prison and denied bail because the prosecutor feared he would leave the States and not return for his trial. Not even the high-priced lawyer Raul had retained to handle his son's case could get the judge to change his decision, though he pleaded that Gabriel would willingly surrender his Costa Rican passport.
So much for American justice, Raul seethed silently. A surge of rage darkened his brown face at the same time his hands tightened into fists. While his son languished in the bowels of an American prison, other known criminals ran rampant through the streets thumbing their noses at U.S. justice. Men who were known to openly engage in illegal activities felt the warmth of the morning sun and enjoyed the smell of fresh air while Gabriel lay in a small concrete jail cell on a narrow cot inhaling the stench from his open commode.
"Not my son!" he whispered to the empty room. Not the child he'd waited thirty-six years to father.
A sharp knock on the door dis turbed his turbulent thoughts. "Come in!" There was no mistaking the harshness in the command. The door opened slowly and his eyes widened in surprise. She had disobeyed him. He'd told her not to come to Costa Rica. She was to have remained in the States—with Gabriel. She was all his son had there.
Large, clear-brown eyes took in the thunderous expression on the face of the tall, white-haired man. At one time that expression would've sent her running from his celebrated temper, but no longer. She was thirty years old, a grown woman. The tyrant she had once feared was gone forever, and in his place a broken man. Serena could see her stepfather hurting. What he was feeling at that moment, she also felt. Raul had lost a son and she her half brother.
Holding out her arms, she walked slowly into his study. "Poppa." Her normally husky voice shook with raw emotion. "I had to come."
Raul crossed the room and pulled her gently to his chest. Burying his face in her wealth of unruly curls, he held her close, feeling the trembling in her tiny body. "I told you to stay, Chica. I told you to stay because Gabriel needs you."
Pulling back slightly, Serena blinked back the tears flooding her large round eyes. "Gabe wouldn't see me."
Raul frowned. "What do you mean?"
"He refuses to see me."
His frown deepened. "Why?"
Serena shook her head, a riot of reddish-brown curls moving as if they'd had taken on a life of their own. "I don't know. I spoke to his attorney, and he says that Gabe doesn't want to talk to anyone except those who are his legal counsel." She sniffled, bringing a tissue to her pert nose. "I'm his sister, and he won't see or talk to me."
Embracing her again, Raul brought her head to his chest. "Whatever you do, don't breathe a word of this to your mother."
"How is she holding up?"
"Not well. She won't leave her room."
Extracting herself, Serena paced the length of the carpeting lining the expansive room. "I don't understand any of it, Poppa. Gabe called me and said he was going down to the Keys—"
"What keys?" Raul interrupted.
Remembering that her stepfather was not an American, and that he was not familiar with the terminology, she smiled for the first time in two weeks.
"The Florida Keys. He told me that he and a friend were going on a sailing expedition down to the Caribbean. They had planned to pick up a few more people in the Bahamas before return ing to the States. On their return trip they were intercepted by the United States Coast Guard. What followed is a jumble of confusion, and U.S. officials claim that the boat they were on was filled with drugs, and that Gabe and his fellow passengers are smugglers."
"That's a lie!" Raul shouted.
She stopped pacing. "We both know that! If that boat was carrying drugs, then Gabe knew nothing about it. He had to have been set up."
"And I know who set him up."
Serena arched a delicate eyebrow. "Who, Poppa?"
Raul gave her a long, penetrating look before his heavy eyelids lowered, concealing the hatred and distrust burning within them. "Los Estados Unidos."
Her jaw dropped as she stared back at her stepfather. "Why the United States?"
"Because I won't permit them to rape my country. Because I make them pay for the destruction they leave behind when they take what they want from Costa Rica. These Americans grow rich and stuff their already swollen bellies…"
"Do you actually believe the United States would black mail Gabe because of you?"
He nodded, unable to disclose the political machinations going on between Costa Rica and other foreign powers about business ventures. Foreign companies were responsible for the slow, but methodic destruction of the rain forest and its indigenous wildlife. If left unchecked, the foreigners would make the land uninhabitable, make it impossible for Costa Ricans to survive in their own country. Their nation would fare no better than the people and the vanishing wildlife of the Brazilian Amazon.
"I don't believe that," Serena countered angrily.
"That's because you are an American, Chica. I expect you to defend your country."
Swallowing, she chose her words carefully. "We'll talk about this later. I must see my mother."
She loved her stepfather because he was the only father she'd ever known. However, Serena could never understand his virulent dislike of Americans. She found this hard to fathom because he'd married her mother, who had never given up her American citizenship.
He inclined his near-white head. "Yes. We'll talk later." He waited and he wasn't disappointed when she walked over to him and rose on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. Cupping the back of her head, he pressed his lips to her forehead. "Te amo, Chica."
"And I love you, too, Poppa," she whispered then turned and made her way out of the room.
Raul waited as the door opened and closed behind his stepdaughter's retreating figure. He was still staring at the door when it opened slightly and his driver stepped into the room.
"What is it? " he snapped. Rodrigo knew better than to enter his study without knocking.
"Señor Cole has arrived in San José and is waiting for you."
Raul's scowl deepened quickly. David Cole had returned to Costa Rica. The last time he and the brash young man met they'd traded words—words that had left a bitter taste in his mouth. Words he never would've permitted another man to utter in his presence. Words that David Cole would find himself swallowing and choking on.
"Tell Señor Cole that I cannot leave Puerto Limón at this time. If he refuses to come, then bring him here— either standing or reclining. The choice will be his. That will be all, Rodrigo."
"S…, Señor Vega."
Raul waited for the door to close, a feral smile curling his upper lip. The United States government held his son prisoner, and now he wanted Samuel Cole to feel the same pain when he imprisoned his last born.
"An eye for an eye, and a son for a son."
His threat, though spoken softly, carried through out the space and lingered like a musical note before fading into a hushed silence.
Serena Morris took a back stair case up to her mother's bedroom. Heaviness weighed on her narrow shoulders like a leaded blanket. She had felt so helpless once she realized there was nothing she could do to change her brother's mind. Her letters were returned and her calls went unanswered. It was as if Gabriel Vega had divorced his family.
His eyes—she would never forget the vacant, haunted look in his dark eyes when their gazes met across the space in the Florida court room. His glance was furtive before he turned his head and stared ahead while pleading innocent to the formal charges of drug trafficking and murder. When he was led out of the court room he refused to meet her gaze again.
She and Gabe were only four years apart, yet she'd always felt much older. When her mother had come home from the hospital with the baby, she held her arms out and said firmly, "Mine."
Juanita Morris-Vega had glanced at her beaming husband, then placed the sleeping, three-day-old infant boy in his half sister's out stretched arms. The little girl and boy, who uncannily shared the same birthday, bonded instantly, and over the years had become inseparable.
Marking her way down the cool, wide hallway, Serena realized she had almost forgotten how beautiful the house in Limón was. A white, two-story, stucco structure built on a hill overlooking the lush rain forest, it claimed expansive hallways, arched entrances, highly waxed mahogany floors, and white washed walls. It was a home designed in the manner of a spacious Spanish hacienda. She had once called the house home, but now her one-bedroom apartment in a teeming New York City neighborhood was home.
Her stepfather had named the house La Montaña. Her mother much preferred their smaller residence in San José because of the capital city's cooler temperatures. Serena never tired of coming to La Montaña. She was never bothered by the heat.
Knocking lightly on the solid mahogany door, she pushed it open. The lengthening morning shadows shrouded the petite figure of Juanita Vega reclining on a massive, antique four-poster bed. Moving closer, Serena watched for movement which would indicate that her mother was awake.
"Mother?" she whispered.
Juanita sat up and stared at her daughter as if she were an apparition. "Serena!" There was no mistaking the elation in her voice.
Seconds later Serena found herself in her mother's embrace, inhaling the familiar fragrance of Joy.