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The sharp snap jarred Lila out of an uneasy sleep. She bolted upright. Shrugging off the coarse, itchy blanket, she peered through the dirty car window into the dark, now-silent night. Where'd Chad go?
She glanced into the front seat. The keys dangled from the ignition, and her purse rested on the passenger seat where she'd left it before crawling into the back for a nap. Her mouth dry, she inhaled the mist seeping through the open window in the front.
Pressing her nose against the cool glass, she tried to focus on the dark shapes etched in the muted moonlight. Rubbing her eyes, she rolled down the window, catching the salty air on her tongue. A grove of palmetto and conical boojum trees created a thick barrier halting the encroachment of the narrow gravel road.
She heard it again, a crack cutting through the air. That same sound had permeated her sleep, dredging her up to this muddled state of consciousness. Instinctively, she opened her mouth to call out to Chad, but prickles of uncertainty danced along the back of her neck. She snapped her lips shut.
Chad told her earlier that he had to make a stop to meet someone before they crossed the border, but in this deserted spot? Didn't make sense.
She grasped the car-door handle, easing it forward and nudging the door open with her knee. The dome light flickered and faded, failing to shed any light on her predicament.
"Damn," she muttered, "broken like everything else in this crappy car."
She placed a sandaled foot on a thick carpet of plant life that muffled her step.
And slid into the unknown.
Leaving the door open, she stole through the cluster of trees toward a new sound. Voices. Did Chad find hisfriend? The tone of the voices didn't sound very friendly. She crouched behind some underbrush that skirted a small clearing.
Angry words punctuated the night air. She strained to understand them, inching toward another bush to gain a clear view of the open space.
She gaped at the man kneeling on the ground with his hands secured behind his back. A streak of what looked like blood stained his right cheek. Chad. And those men didn't look like friends.
A thickset figure stood before Chad, holding a thin whip. Another, taller man pointed a gun at Chad's head. The man with the whip snapped it and barked out a question in a foreign language. Chad shook his head, earning him a swipe across his bare chest. A thin line of blood sprang up. He jerked his head back, his long blond hair swinging behind him.
Lila bit the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming. The metallic taste of her own blood spiked her tongue. She couldn't understand the stocky man. Her brow creased. The language he spoke didn't remotely resemble Spanish.
Chad's tormentors had their backs to her, so she poked her head above the shrubbery to get his attention.
His half-closed eyes widened for a moment. He shook his head and groaned out, "No," before dropping his chin to his chest.
Was that meant for her? She ducked.
Crouching, she scanned the ground for a heavy rock or a stick. She needed a weapon. She glanced back at the gun glinting in the moonlight and froze. A rock, no matter how heavy, couldn't take on a firearm.
Her eyes darted to the other side of the clearing. Should she create a disturbance? Could Chad escape? Eyeing his limp form, she doubted he could make much of an effort. No, she had to get away and find help if she hoped to save Chad.
From their language, she knew the men weren't Mexican Federales. At least Chad hadn't broken any Mexican laws to get into this predicament. Or had he? What did she really know about Chad Delaney beyond what his casual chatter revealed during the three carefree days they'd spent together?
The man with the whip growled out another question. Raising his head, Chad gasped out an answer in the same language.
The whip shot out again, this time catching Chad across his bare thigh. Lila twitched with the impact, the sting resonating on her own flesh.
Chad threw his head back and yelled, "El túnel está aquí " The tall man fired his gun. Chad pitched face forward in the dirt.
Her stomach lurched. She ground her teeth together to subdue the sour lump of terror rising from her gut.
Her eyes burned into the backs of the men now standing over Chad's lifeless body, but her feet stayed as rooted to the ground as the thick brush that ringed the clearing.
Branches crackled and the trees across from her parted, ejecting two more men brandishing guns. As they cursed in Spanish, Lila peeled her feet from the ground and backed up one step at a time. The thick, springy undergrowth silenced her footsteps, but the two sets of men were too busy screaming at each other to hear anything anyway.
Once free of the bushes, she spun and ran for the car. Her heart ricocheted in her chest. The sound of her own terror roared in her ears like a wild beast. She tripped on a gnarled root. She sprawled forward, flinging her arms out in front of her. The sharp edges of the leaves and twigs covering the ground bit into her palms and knees. She dragged herself up. She plunged ahead, ignoring the pain that pierced her ankle.
Staccato blasts echoed in the clearing.
More tree branches snapped.
Were they chasing her?
A sob ripped through her throat. A scream penetrated the mist. She couldn't tell if it belonged to her or one of the four men involved in the shoot-out behind her.
She lunged at the car and gripped the door handle. As she yanked the door open, her breath raked through her lungs. She twisted her head over her shoulder to peer into the moon-smudged darkness.
No one followed. Were they all dead? She didn't plan to stick around for the autopsies.
Dropping onto the driver's seat, she grabbed at the keys in the ignition and cranked them forward. The engine sprang to life, and she ground the gearshift into Reverse. She stomped on the accelerator without even looking behind her. The back door of the car, which she'd left open, slammed shut. Her heart rate charged up another notch.
The tires crunched on the gravel, spewing dust and grit in their wake. Once she hit the paved road, Lila spun the steering wheel, threw the gear shift into first and gunned it. The car lurched and almost stalled before she shoved it into second and then third gear. Giving a protesting whine, the car straightened out on the asphalt and hurtled forward into the night. Her eyes picked out a Jeep pulled over to the side of the road. Stopping was not an option.
Lila clutched the steering wheel, her eyes darting back and forth between the road in front of her and the rearview mirror. Surely the men who murdered Chad heard her escape but still nobody came. And who were the other two, Chad's friends?
She careened off the main road onto a smaller one that paralleled the coast. Her mind buzzed with shock and fear as she continued driving on for another hour.
Peeling her eyes from their constant vigil between the road ahead and the one receding in her mirror, she glanced down at the instrument panel. She needed gas. She needed food. And she needed to harness her galloping thoughts.
Calling the police in Mexico spelled trouble. What if Chad planned to meet this friend for a drug deal or something? Would the police arrest her as his accomplice? A cold fear grabbed her gut.
The light broke to the east, filtering through the haze, working its fingers through the gaps in the brown hills. A battered sign announced the next town, Loma Vista.
She pulled up to a gas pump in front of a dusty roadside café on the outskirts of town. As she filled the tank, her hands shook and the gas sloshed from the nozzle dribbling down the side of the car.
Leaning into the window, she grabbed her purse and walked toward the little café to pay and get something to eat.
The man at the counter smiled, his teeth gleaming against his brown skin. "Hola, señorita. You pay for gas?"
Lila answered, "Hola, yes, the gas, and could I please have some huevos rancheros and a cup of coffee?"
The few patrons at the counter ignored her. Americans close to the border were commonplace, even off the main road.
When she pulled out her wallet, a white envelope, with her first name scribbled across the front, slid to the floor. Wrinkling her brow, she picked it up.
She paid the clerk and carried the envelope to a table by the window. She ripped it open and pulled out a single sheet of folded paper.
Lila, if you're reading this then something happened to me. If I don't return to the car, take it across the border and go straight to the name and address at the bottom of this page. Don't call the police or go to the Federales. I'm sorry to drag you into this, but when I saw you standing at the side of the road it was a stroke of luck for me. I'm afraid it was an ill omen for you, but once you deliver the car and tell Justin what happened you'll be fine. Again, I'm sorry
The name Justin Vidal and an address appeared at the bottom of the page.
The proprietor put her plate of eggs on the table. She jumped.
He frowned. "Lo siento, señorita. I scare you?"
Shaking her head and covering the letter with her hand, she gave a hollow laugh. "Oh no, no. I'm just tired. That's why I need the coffee. Gracias."
He shrugged, put the coffee cup on the table next to the plate and shuffled back to the counter.
Clutching her fork, she stared at the letter. Chad expected trouble and picked her up anyway. She jabbed at the eggs on her plate and speared a forkful into her mouth. As she chewed, she ground her teeth together.
He used her to make sure the news of his demise would get safely back to this Justin Vidal, whoever he was.
She swallowed and sighed, her anger evaporating as quickly as it collected. The man just died. She could at least try to honor his last wishes, unless there were drugs in the car. She wouldn't go down that road again.
She screwed her eyes shut, trying to block out the vision of Chad plunging forward into the dirt. Before the others arrived, Chad and the two men had been speaking a strange language. Arabic? She didn't see the men as clearly as Chad's battered body claimed all her attention. Why did a man like Chad, a surfer on vacation in Mexico, speak Arabic?
The other two came charging in speaking Spanish. Were they all connected, or did the Mexicans stumble onto the scene as she did? With guns? Chad had some strange friends.
Puffing her cheeks, she blew out a breath of air and swept her change off the table into her hand. While putting her change away in her wallet, she flipped it open to the plastic insert. With her fingertip, she traced the outline of a face in the photo. Tyler.
She finished her eggs and swallowed the rest of her coffee, grimacing at its bitter taste. Calling a farewell to the man at the counter, she walked out to the car. She glanced up and down the road.
Before proceeding any further with this wild scheme or getting in any deeper, she wanted to make sure Chad didn't have anything illegal stashed in his trunk, making her an unwitting accomplice. Once was believable, twice was criminal.
In keeping with the car's battered condition, the trunk lock was broken. She eased open the trunk, tilting her head sideways to glimpse inside. Drawing her brows together, she reached out to pluck at what looked like a pile of clothes.
Her fingers touched clammy human flesh. She gasped and drew back as the trunk light illuminated the curled-up body of a man. She clamped her fist to her mouth.
She slammed the lid down and stood trembling. Her hand gripped the keys in the broken lock. Was this the friend Chad went to meet? She craned her neck to glance into the café at the same bunch of men huddled over the counter. Nobody even looked out the window.
Could she dump the body out here? Don't be ridiculous. She'd never get away with that.
Should she tell someone inside the restaurant to call the Federales? Chad's letter specifically ordered her not to do that, but what did she owe Chad? He dragged her into this mess and then got himself murdered, but maybe he knew calling the Federales would get her into trouble now.
The screen door of the café banged open, and the proprietor stepped out onto the sagging porch. "Is everything okay, señorita? Your car okay?"
She yelled back, "Está bien. It's okay."
He stood outside watching her, and she made one of her hasty decisions. Oh hell, I'm going to do what Chad asked me to do in that letter. Dead body or no dead body.
She waved to the man on the porch and slid into the car.
Taking it slow and easy, she got back on the main road toward Tijuana and the border. She joined the line of cars crawling through the border stop. She licked her dry lips and called over one of the many vendors threading their way through the cars. After a few minutes of haggling, she bought a large, gaudy sombrero and a donkey puppet on strings in an attempt to appear like a normal tourist, even though she felt far from normal. Tyler would like the puppet anyway.
As she inched the dirty little car forward, her mouth got drier and drier. Her hands gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles bleached white. She drew a ragged breath and grabbed the water bottle lying on the seat next to her. She grimaced at the film of sediment at the bottom of the bottle and wet her lips with the warm, stale water.
Releasing the steering wheel, she flexed her fingers and coached herself. "You can do this, Lila."
The Border Patrol agent approached her car, and she turned down the radio and rolled down the window. His dark sunglasses hid his eyes, reflecting her face. Her lips peeled back in a smile.
He ducked his head. "Good morning, ma'am. What was the reason for your visit to Mexico?"
"Just came over as a tourist." She didn't want to get into any long explanations with him about her research as a marine biologist.
Gesturing to the car, he said, "Looks like you've been driving quite a bit."
She shrugged. "Just down the coast and back." Sucking in a breath, she held her smile and waited.
He shook his head. "It's not a great idea for a woman to drive alone in Mexico."
Stepping back, he waved her through. "Have a nice day."
She expelled her breath, and breezed across the border into the United States of America.
Once she reached the border town of Nestor, she pulled off the road into the parking lot of a shopping center. She grabbed the grubby street map shoved in the door's side pocket. After jotting down the directions to the address in Chad's note, she took off to deliver the bad news and the dead body to Justin Vidal.