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"He won't kill her," Fiona whispered, adjusting the dark scarf that covered her bright blond hair. "He can't."
It was early morning with the sun barely over the horizon. She and her cameraman, Anthony Torres, lay flat on a fourth-floor balcony with only blooming bougainvillea and an ancient black wrought-iron railing for cover.
Peeking through the cover of leaves, thorns and purple blossoms, they watched the courtyard below where Ramon Montoya, head of Colombian National Security, was interrogating Maria Salvador. According to rumor, she was one of the leaders of Revolucionarios Armados de ColombiaRADECa rebel group dedicated to freeing Colombia from the iron grip of the current regimeof which Montoya was the worst.
"It's not like it would be his first execution." Tony kept the small camera focused on the scene.
"Yeah, really," Tony said, not taking his eyes off the scene below. "But he usually doesn't kill women. Not often."
Small comfort, Fiona thought, stifling a yawn.
"Do not tell me you're bored," Tony said.
"Not a chance," Fiona whispered. "But I could use a cup of espresso." They'd been hitting the sketchier bars for the past few nights searching for the story, the one that would make them both famous. Then, last evening, their diligence plus a fistful of American dollars had brought them here.
Fiona was thrilled to have the chance to report something worthwhile, but she would have been more thrilled if she'd had a few hours of sleep.
Beneath them, Montoya backhanded Maria across the face, the sound echoing against the brick enclosure. Maria fell to the ground in a small heap, her long black hairspreading across the broken pavement.
A shot of adrenaline surged through Fiona, dissipating her need for rest. "We have to stop him," Fiona whispered even as the reporter in her told her to stay put. To watch with dispassion and do her job.
"With what? Harsh words?"
Fiona rolled her eyes. "How about calling for help?"
"Call who? The police?" Tony asked with a hint of sarcasm.
She frowned, since the men below them were in charge of the police. "Someone. Anyone," she said with a scowl.
"See if my cell works," Tony said, rolling to his side a few inches but never losing the shot. "Front right pocket."
Fiona dug into his jeans pocket and wrapped her fingers around the phone.
"Farther down," he whispered with a wicked grin. "And firmer."
"Pervert." She pulled the cell out and flipped it open. It blinked at her, showing no coverage. Sometimes, she hated Third World countries. Granted, they had all the best stories, but at times like this she missed the United States and the convenience of a cell tower on every corner.
She shoved the phone back into Tony's pocket. "No signal."
"Not a sur"
Maria screamed, cutting off Anthony. Fiona froze. Squinting in the sunlight, she watched as Montoya pulled the woman to her feet by her hair.
"¿Dónde están, Maria?" Montoya screamed the question where are theyloud enough that Fiona was sure the neighboring country heard his shout. Yet none of the curtains in the windows surrounding the courtyard so much as fluttered. People didn't want to get involved, and she couldn't blame them. When the men in charge were the bad guys, there was no one to turn to.
That was why she was here, she reminded herself. To uncover the truth and help make changes in a country run by a government that was as corrupt as the Mafia and twice as dangerous. If she won an Emmy, or perhaps a Pulitzer, that was icing on the cake and nothing more.
Or so she told herself, even as she envisioned herself giving an acceptance speech.
The air in the courtyard tightened, became electric with tension. Montoya's men straightened.
Something was about to happen, she realized. Fiona pushed thoughts of a Pulitzer to the back of her mind and strained to listen.
Maria said something, but her husky voice carried no farther than Montoya's ears. He drew closer. She spat on him. He wiped her spit off his cheek.
"Good for her," Fiona whispered, but she hoped that Maria's small act of defiance wouldn't cost her.
"I'm not so sure," Tony replied. He tweaked the directional microphone and adjusted his earpiece. It wasn't large, but Fiona knew it was the most powerful sound device on the market and it picked up sounds that she couldn't hear.
"What's he saying?" she asked.
"That if she tells him where the rebels are he will make sure they are imprisoned but not killed."
"She doesn't buy that, does she?"
Tony hesitated. "No. She's still denying any involvement."
"What do you think?" Fiona asked, wondering if the woman was as innocent as she claimed. Not that it mattered. No one should be subjected to such brutality by the hands of those who were sworn to protect the public. "Is she uninvolved?"
"No," Tony whispered. "According to my contacts, she's at the top of that particular food chain."
Fiona's blood chilled. If Tony was so certain, it was a sure bet that Montoya was, as well. "Damn it."
"Exactly, but as long as she doesn't confess to anything, I think she'll be fine," Tony said.
Montoya hit Maria again, the force of the blow making her take a step back.
Fiona winced, wishing she was as sure as her cameraman. "I hope you're right," she whispered. "Because in a few seconds, I am going to have to say or do something."
"Hold your horses, Don Quixote," Tony cautioned. "I think something's happening." He adjusted the camera and zoomed in on the scene.
Below them, Montoya pushed Maria away and pointed toward a door on the far side of the courtyard. "Is he letting her go?" Fiona's heart pounded with fear and anticipation.
"It looks that way," Tony said, but his tone suggested the same lack of sureness that pulsed through Fiona.
Maria adjusted her tiered skirt, dusted the leaves from her hair and headed for the doorway with her head held high. The men moved aside to let her pass.
Fiona's pounding heart slowed, and she breathed a sigh of relief, letting her head drop to her hands. "Thank God," she whispered. Maria was going to be all right. They had the story, and she'd be able to sleep at night.
A barrage of gunshots sounded from the courtyard below, and Fiona snapped to attention, swallowing her shout of horror.
Through the bougainvillea, she saw Maria on the pavement. Bullet holes riddled her lithe body. Blood spattered the pavement around her.
Even as Fiona gaped in horror, Tony jumped to his feet. "No!"
Below, Montoya whirled, and even at forty feet, Fiona saw his eyes widen in surprise at the cameraman's appearance. In less time than it took her to realize what was happening, Montoya raised his gun and fired. Tony fell backward, striking the wall behind them as blood bloomed on his chest. His camera clattered to the tiled floor, still filming.
For a heartbeat, Fiona stared at him, stunned. Not sure whether he was alive or dead and not sure what to do in either case.
"Fiona," Tony whispered, his voice thick with pain.
His voice brought her back to reality. "Oh, my God, we've got to get you out of here."
He coughed and blood stained his lips. "Not going anywhere." Tony grabbed for the camera, missing. "Run. Take the film to Angel."
"Angel?" Hands shaking, Fiona moved the camera aside to check the wound. The entrance wasn't bad, she realized, but blood poured from beneath him from an exit wound she suspected was monstrous.
Tony grabbed her wrist. "Get to Angel. Mercenary. Friend." He strained to talk, his words clipped and tight. "He can protect you. The film."
Film? Who cared? "Screw the film." Fiona shook her head. "What the hell were you thinking? I have to get you to a doctor."
Remaining low and out of sight, she pressed one hand to his chest and another against his back. The feel of his blood, warm and sticky on her palms, made her nauseous.
Tony's eyelids fluttered and a whimper escaped his lips. "Stop," he whispered through clenched teeth. "Please. Stop."
"Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God," Fiona muttered. They'd hopped across rooftops to get to the building. How was she going to get him out if he couldn't walk?
"Angel. Get to Angel," Tony insisted.
"No." She pressed harder, but the blood refused to stop.
"Leave me or die."
"Fine. I'll go," she agreed, even though she did not intend to leave him alone. "Stubborn, butt-headed drama queen."
Though he labored to breathe, Tony managed a weak smile. "Not me. You," he said, his voice faint.
With the back of her hand, Fiona wiped away tears she'd been unaware of until they'd blurred her vision. Maybe if she found this Angel person, she could convince him to help her with Tony. "Where do I find him?"
The bar on the zocalo? It wasn't a surprise. What better place to find a mercenary? "I'll hurry," she said.
"Good." Tony touched her hand, his grip weak. "This makes me miss dog shows."
She twined her fingers through his. When she'd met Tony a few months ago, she was covering a dog show in Los Angeles, and he was her new cameraman. They'd bonded over the fact that they both thought their talents were wasted. Then he'd suggested they come to Colombia, his country, and find a story, make things happen instead of playing the game.
"Me, too," she replied. "Though I could live without the constant leg-humping."
Tony gave a feeble chuckle. "That was my favorite part."
Shouting in the courtyard caught her attention. "Be right back," Fiona said. Letting go of his hand, she crawled back to the edge of the balcony and peered over. Montoya was yelling. Pointing.
Seconds later, the sound of a door splintering made her tremble. Montoya's men were in the building. They'd be on her in a few minutes. She'd have to hide Tony until she could come back with help. She crawled back to him. "I'll be back soon," she promised. "With Angel. I'm going to get you out of here."
Tony stared at the sky. His chest no longer rose and fell. She swallowed back a cry of despair. "Tony?"
Nothing. She touched him. "Anthony?" He was dead. For a moment, she stared at the corpse, oblivious to anything but his sightless eyes. Then shouts reached her ears.
Panic roared through her body. She clenched her hands into tight fists. Focus, she told herself. Focus, Fiona. Focus or die.
Taking a deep, controlled breath, she forced the rising panic to the back of her mind then exhaled. Her pulse slowed. She unclenched her fists.
Time to run.
Wiping the blood off her palms and onto her denim-covered thighs, she closed Tony's eyes with a shaky hand, popped the microtape out of the camera and stuck it in the front pocket of her jeans.
Retracing the route she and Tony had taken to break in to the ancient apartment complex, she hunched over to keep her profile low and hurried through the French doors and into the empty hotel room. The sound of feet echoed in the stairwell. The men were almost at her floor.
Although it was risky to enter the open hallway, Fiona hurried across the few feet of the narrow passage and into the opposite room, easing the door shut behind her.
Out in the hallway, the men reached the fourth-floor landing.
Fiona ran for the window and swung both feet over the ledge. Dropping to the roof a few feet below her, she landed on her toes for silence. Even though she stood outside and with the door closed, the soldier's speech carried through the thin walls. She froze, listening.
"Esta vacío," someone shouted.
It's empty. They'd found the camera and checked.
"Encuentre a su socio."
Find his partner. They knew about her. They knew. She put her hand over her mouth to keep from throwing up.
Angel Castillo stared at the shot of mescal in front of him, debating if it was too soon in the day to have a drink. Wasn't it Alan Jackson who sang that it was "five o'clock somewhere"?
He picked up the shot glass and turned it around, letting the sunlight filter through the pale yellow liquid.
"Isn't it a little early for that?" Juan asked as he wiped down the top of the bar.
"Then why did you serve me?"
"Because you tip well."
Angel shrugged. His mother had been a waitress, working at a diner, and the nights she came home with little more than a few crumpled bills outnumbered the nights she came home with bulging pockets.
He knew the food business was difficult. Even more so when it was in a crap-hole like Bogotá, Colombia.
He set the glass down, and Juan slid a cup of coffee in front of him. "Try this."
"I've tasted your coffee. It's more lethal than any bullet."
"Yeah?" Juan laughed. "At least you'll be awake to hear the shot."
Angel shrugged and took a sip. The brew was thick. Black. And possibly illegal in some countries. If not, it should be.
"Bad night?" Juan asked as he put away glasses from last night's patrons, a combination of locals and tourists that never failed to amuse.
Angel glanced at Juan over the rim of the mug. A few weeks ago, when he'd come in at two in the morning, bleary-eyed and almost incoherent from lack of sleep, he'd told the bartender about the nightmares.
Mostly, Angel didn't remember them. He wasn't sure if that made them better or worse. What he did remember were the emotions they heaped on him. Anger. Remorse. The sense of helplessness.
"The dreams?" Juan pressed.
Angel raised a brow. This was the last time he confided in a bartender.
Juan shrugged. "Hey, if you need to talk, let me know."
"You going to ask me about my feelings next?" Angel asked. The corners of his mouth turned up a notch to show there was jest beneath the words. "Should we bond? Perhaps do each other's makeup, eat ice cream, and watch a Hugh Grant movie?"
Juan chuckled. "Kind of girlie to ask you if you want to talk, huh?"
Angel held his index and thumb an inch apart. "A notch."
"Blame it on Maria," Juan said. "She says we all should be more attuned to those around us."
Angel chuckled and sipped the coffee. Juan was smitten with the freedom fighter. Hell, everyone was smitten with her, and it wasn't just her beauty. It was true that her long wavy hair, dusky skin, and green eyes captured the attention of men, but her passion held it. Passion for her people. For her country.