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Elise Omayo paused just inside the dim sanctuary of Our Lady of Sacred Hope to soak up the silence and peace of the place. If only she could believe in the things this edifice stood for. She'd give anything to truly embrace ideals like love and faith. Redemption. Now there was a concept. People like her didn't get second chances. Not in this life, and surely not in the next. The best she could hope to do was live out the remainder of her days in a way that didn't add any more to her self-loathing.
"Elise! So good of you to come on such short notice. You look lovely as always." Father Ambrose was a fussy little man, round and soft, but with piercing black eyes that cut through a person's soul like twin lasers. Why he saw anything at all of worth in her, she hadn't the slightest idea.
"You said you have a problem. Of course I came." It was the least she could do for the man who'd talked her down off that bridge five years ago. Literally. Sure, she'd been out of her mind with grief and painkillers and a cocktail of who-knew-what else. But he'd literally climbed up on that railing beside her and convinced her to give him a chance to show her something worth living for. He'd pulled a lost orphan off the streets, given her a home and a purpose, and helped her reach her goal of becoming a nurse. So, here she was. She owed him a favor. A big one.
"Let's go into my office. You look like you could use a nice cup of tea, dear."
Tea? Uh-oh. He must be working himself up to asking her a big favor. Frowning, she followed him.
He hurried down the aisle, pausing briefly to cross himself in front of the altar. Funny how Father A. had never tried to make a Catholic out of her. He said it was God's problem, not his. She wouldn't have made a very good one, anyway, despite her grandmother's best efforts over the years. Too many rituals, too much to remember. Not to mention that whole seven deadly sins business.
She waited patiently while the priest made two cups of steaming hot tea, English-style. When he was finished doctoring it up, the drink tasted more like hot chocolate than tea. She took a sip, promptly burned her tongue, and set the cup down. "Cut to the chase, Father. What do you need? You know I won't say no, so go ahead and blurt it out."
He sighed. "I'm hoping you will do something for me. Something possibly dangerous."
"How dangerous?" She didn't exactly live for thrills and chills, but she'd never shied away from a little risk for a good cause. She'd been known to make house calls in the roughest neighborhoods of New York City in the name of a patient in need.
"I need you to go to Colombia."
Colombia. The word rolled over her like a bad dream. Tangled images of jungle and death, poverty and blood, flashed through her mind's eye for an instant before the grief slammed into her. She reeled with the power of it. Just when she thought she'd made her peace with her parents' murders, something went and tore the scab off again like this, leaving a raw and gaping wound in her heart.
Father Ambrose was speaking again. Struggling to breathe, she forced herself to focus on his words. " . .pair of children have been orphaned in Colombia and are in need of assistance."
Translation: the kids were caught up in the armed struggle between the Colombian government and one of several paramilitary or drug smuggling organizations currently opposing it. She knew all too well what it was like to be a pawn caught in the middle of that brush war. Belatedly, she choked out, "Who are they?"
"Mia and Emanuel Garza."
She was halfway out of her seat before the names barely crossed the priest's lips. No. No, no, no. She saw where this was going. Valdiron Garza had murdered her mother and father. But then the import of the word "orphan" sank in. She sank back down into her seat. "He's dead?" she croaked.
"Yes, my child. He was gunned down in Cartagena a few weeks ago. It is over."
"'It' being her fruitless, and ultimately self-destructive, quest for justice against Garza. Although failing that, she'd have settled for simple revenge.
The priest continued quietly, "I pray you will finally find the peace you seek."
"Who says I seek peace?" she demanded.
His simple statement caught her off guard. Forced her into a moment of sharp self-evaluation. Was he right? Did she seek peace? The answer startled her. Perhaps she did.
"So Garza's children are stuck in Colombia and looking for a way out. Surely you don't expect me to go save them."
"They are children"
"Their father tortured and killed my parents!"
"Wait a minute," she interrupted. "How old are these kids?"
"Six and four."
"Oh, my God. They're babies. You want me to haul them around in a war zone in the jungle?"
"No. I want you to bring them to me. I will find them decent homes here in America."
"What makes you think I won't just kill them and have my revenge?" she demanded. The sweet taste of it battled on her tongue with the sour knowledge that the Garza children were too young to have participated in their father's atrocities.
Father Ambrose merely gave her a reproachful look. Okay, a reproachful look she deserved. She wasn't a child killer any more than someone who could turn her back on anything small and innocent. Damn him!
He knew she couldn't say no to him. Why this favor? Why not something, anything, else? Something that didn't involve a Garza? Something that didn't involve going back to the killing fields of Colombia? Did he hate her for some reason?
"Look, Padre. I know I owe you my life. And I know I told you to ask me any time, any place, for anything, and if it was in my power to do it for you, I would. But we're talking about Valdiron Garza, here. He was a monster. My parents were peaceful missionaries, and he committed an atrocity against them. How do we know his children won't be the same or worse? Are you sending me to rescue two more future psychopaths? How many people will they kill in their turn? Hundreds? Thousands? More? And besides. What makes you think I could get into and out of Colombia and live?"
"They are very young children. There is plenty of time to mold them into kind, loving adults. And I thought perhaps you should go in dressed as a nun."
"Can you think of a better way to ensure your safety in such a dangerous country? It is a religious place. People will look out for you."
She snorted. "You are much more optimistic than I am that an ugly dress and a wimple will save me."
"And that is why I am Christian and you are not."
"I never said I wasn't Christian."
"You never said you were, either," he retorted gently.
He had her there. In fact, he had her squarely over a barrel. She ought to blow off her promise to help him. Ought to get up and walk out of here right now. She sighed, frustrated. "Where are they?"
"I don't know. But someone who does is reportedly in Santa Lucia. A young man fighting with a rebel group."
"That's down on the border with Bolivia, in the heavy jungle. It's incredibly dangerous territory."
"That is why I called you."
"Expendable, am I?"
"Hardly, Elise. But you are, without question, the most determined person I have ever met. And you know Colombia. If you promise to bring those children to me, you'll move heaven and earth to do exactly that. I have complete faith in you."
"You have a great deal more faith in me than I do," she replied bitterly.
"Just so, my child. Just so."
"But I don't look anything like him!" Ted Fisher stared, aghast, at the photo of the dead man. Even allowing for death's pale patina, Drago Cantori was clearly a fair-skinned European and huge. Although Ted was no slouch in the muscles and fitness departmentno special operator wasthis Cantori guy looked as if he sucked down steroids like soda. "In case you haven't noticed, boss, I am of African descent. This Cantori guy is not."
His boss, Navy Commander Brady Hathaway, replied, "We believe Cantori never met his contact in South America. The Army of Freedom insurgents have no idea what he looked like or whether he was black or white. When you show up in place of Cantori they won't know any different."
"You hope," he retorted dryly.
"Captain Fisher, you know more about weapons than anyone else in this facility, not to mention you think well on your feet and speak Spanish like a native. You're the best man for the job."
And that was that. He was going undercover into the jungles of South America on an insanely dangerous op alone and impersonating a dangerous arms dealer. An arms dealer who'd been killed as a side effect of another op to capture Cantori's sister. The mission had been a success and Annika Cantori, a prominent terrorist, was serving life in prison with no possibility of parole. She steadfastly refused to cooperate with the American government, however. Which meant he was on his own.
Drago Cantori had been completely under the U.S. military's radar until he'd surfaced a few months ago. Most of what they knew about his business affairs had been cobbled together from bits and pieces they'd managed to collect from various informants around the world. It was far from a complete picture of the man.
He'd be flying blind for a lot of the mission as he tried to step into the man's shoes and pass himself off as Cantori. Ted picked up the pitifully thin folder that contained everything they knew about the man he was supposed to impersonate. It wouldn't take him ten minutes to memorize everything in here. Talk about going into a mission unprepared. This was a cluster bomb waiting to blow.
Elise tugged at the ill-fitting cardigan sweater bunching up over a dreadful dress. She glanced down at her sensible shoes. They were shockingly comfortable, but she doubted they could've been more hideous looking if someone tried to design them that way. They looked like black bricks on the ends of her legs. In this getup, she hardly needed the black wimple covering her hair to announce that she was a nun. Or at least, doing a darned good impersonation of one.
Now to find the local cantina. That would be where anyone with any influence in Santa Lucia would hang out. It would've been a pretty little town with white, stucco buildings in the Spanish style, were it not for the general poverty and decay enveloping it. But then, the jungle was hard on everything. Car transmissions were torn up by the rutted roads, mildew destroyed textiles, and disease ran rampant in the tropical climate.
It might have been another village three years ago. Different name, different patch of jungle. But the same hopeless desperation clung to the place. This was the Colombia that had cost her both of her parents in a moment of senseless violence.
She hated this place, she hated this place, she hated this place. How Father Ambrose had manipulated her into doing this job, she still wasn't quite sure. It had been on the tip of her tongue to tell the priest where he could go, yet here she was. The man was an evil genius, collar or no.
She passed a pair of women even shorter than her, which was saying something. She barely topped five foot two. Aah. There. A faded painting of a foaming beer mug beside a doorway. She ducked into the vestibule and pushed open a heavy, mahogany door.
Every pair of eyes in the joint stared. That's right. Nun in the house. Be afraid, boys. Very afraid. She slid into a booth and waited for the barkeep to come over to her resentfully.
"I'll have whatever soda you've got in a can or bottle," she said in polite Spanish.
"You planning to stay long?" the guy growled.
Guilt and beer didn't mix, apparently. In the two days she'd spent in this costume traveling here, the predominant reaction to her wimple from everyone had been reflexive shame. It would've been hilarious if she hadn't been so worried about passing for a nun in this heavily Catholic country. "Am I bad for business?" she asked innocently.
He looked startled. "Yes, actually. You are."
"Then tell me where I can find the Army of Freedom and I'll get out of here."
The barkeep lurched. "What does a woman of the cloth want with people like that?"
"Church business," she replied shortly.
The man frowned, but she didn't elaborate. Valdiron Garza, Chief of Internal Security for the Colombian Armybetter known as Chief of Terrorizing Anyone Who Tangled With Garzahad been arguably the most hated man in Colombia. He'd been an equal opportunity murderer, killing people on both sides of the armed conflict between the government and rebel insurgents. News that his children were nearby would spark a feeding frenzy of Garza's victims out for revenge of their own against the kids. As much as she'd hated Garza, she couldn't transfer that hate to a pair of innocent young children. In fact, her main emotion for them was fear for their safety. Not to mention she'd given Father Ambrose her word that she'd keep them safe.
The bartender left to fetch her soda and she risked a glance around the place. It was full of hard men with harder gazes. They didn't like her being here and they weren't afraid to let it show. Wimple or no wimple, it made her nervous. Very nervous. Missionaries got murdered and nuns got assaulted in places like this.
A bottle of grape soda slammed down onto the table before her and she jumped. "What do I owe you?" she asked.
"On the house if you'll take it and leave now."
She sensed a subtle warning in the man's voice. If she stayed any longer, she would get into trouble. Panic leaped in her throat. This place, this whole cursed country, scared her to death. And frankly, she wasn't the type to run around facing down her fears for fun. Every cell in her body screamed at her to get out of here and go home to nice, safe, New York City.
She slid out of the booth, grabbed the warm bottle and stepped out into the muggy afternoon. Today was overcast and relatively coolonly in the mid-eighties. She remembered all too well how this place felt on a hot day with the sun beating down. Saunalike. As it was, she felt as though she was swimming down the street.