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Luz Delgado slapped the steering wheel of her SUV as though that would help get her across the international bridge that spanned the Rio Grande into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, faster. The traffic was what it was, barely inching forward. Stop and go. Stop and go. She could see construction equipment ahead. She should have walked the bridge across the river as were the dozens of people on foot. Not needing to be further stressed, she tried to tune out the slow-down.
Making a call on her cell, she got nothing but an instruction to leave a message. "Where are you, Diego? Why haven't you returned my calls?"
She hadn't heard from her half brother for three days now. His girlfriend, Pilar Morales, had disappeared, and Diego had been determined to find her. Luz had made him promise to call her every day so she would know he was all right. He had called a few times. Then the calls had stopped coming, making Luz wonder if Diego had met the same fate as his girlfriend, whatever that might be.
Not knowing what had happened to him was killing her. She'd had to find out and so she had abandoned the safety of the bookstore where she worked, where she'd hidden from life for nearly five years. For the last half decade, she'd preferred reading about life rather than experiencing it. But Diego's disappearance had pushed her to act quite out of character.
She'd left San Antonio for a quick trip into Mexico, in hopes that she would be able to see for herself that her brother was all right. She was all he had, really. Cancer had taken his mother from him when he was a teenager. He must have relatives somewhere in Mexico, but his mother had left her family and had never spoken of them.
The tangle of traffic just ahead finally seemed to straighten itself out as it rounded the road repairs. Luz found herself moving along at last, then quickly made it through the customs and immigration checkpoint.
Now in Mexico, Luz entered another world, one of open-air mercados and street vendors, of mariachis and landscaped plazas alive with families, children shrieking as they played around the fountains. Beggars with signs saying they were hungry and hucksters hawking cheap wares swarmed around every vehicle on the street. She'd been here before to visit Diego, but she never felt quite comfortable.
Luz drove past the mayhemmuch of it, like the horse-drawn buggies, calculated to attract the tourist dollarto a quieter part of the border town.
She passed mostly one-and two-story buildings until she reached her brother's block, distinctive because of the clay-colored arcade building, whose arches gave entry to the shaded walkway and shop doors. Also distinctive were the three floors of apartments above the shops. Diego lived on the top floor over a farmacia, a supermercado and a small handicraft shop.
Parking was nearly impossible, but today she was lucky and found a spot directly across the street.
Getting out of the SUV, Luz felt unsettled, almost as if she were being watched. The weird feeling sending a chill down her spine and making her stomach knot had to be from worry over Diego. She looked around and assured herself no one was paying her any mind.
Well, almost no one.
A couple of teenagers stopped in the street to stare at her and whistle. "Hey, belleza, ven conmigo!"
Even though she perfectly understood the kid's come on, Luz ignored him. She was used to being hit on, whether in English or Spanish. Still, the thought of confronting the kid bothered her, made her pulse rush a little faster, so she grabbed her bag, beeped her vehicle locked and crossed to the apartment building's courtyard entry.
After pressing her brother's doorbell several times with no response, Luz headed directly for Nuevo Laredo Artesania, owned and run by Jacinta Herrera, Diego's landlady. Fired clay pots spilled into the walkway and hand-carved wood pieces hung from hooks around the doorway. Entering, Luz looked around and oriented herself.
The interior of the store was fitted with old wood and glass displays filled to the brim with silver bracelets and earrings and small and large leather goods. An old trastern with doors open featured wearable artembroidered camisas and long skirts and shawls. Luz had been in here only a few times before, but she had always been impressed with the quality of the merchandise.
The thing that impressed her the most, however, was a series of masks lining the wall behind the counter. They were life-size ceramic masks of women's faces. Luz knew they were the missing, suspected victims of human trafficking. The number had increased since she'd last been here.
Shuddering at the thought of people being lifted off the street in the newest incarnation of slavery, Luz looked for the owner.
Jacinta Herrera, a regal sixty-something, silver wings in her long, dark hair framing a gently lined face, was with a customer, a well-heeled younger woman with striking Aztec features and flawless taste. Dressed in a designer, clay-colored suit that played up her exotic heritage, a gem-encrusted snake bracelet decorating one wrist, the customer was paying for a hand-tooled turquoise and coral leather purse. The transaction completed, she left the shop without ever turning her black eyes to Luz. Her disinterest was palpable.
Luz couldn't help but watch her go cross the arcade and approach a black car where a man opened the door for her. A driver?
She was pulled back to her quest when the owner asked in Spanish, "Can I help you?"
Answering in kind, Luz said, "Señora Herrera, perhaps you remember me"
The wrinkled face smoothed as the woman brightened. "Of course. You're Diego Ortiz's sister. Luz, yes? Please, call me Jacinta."
Thankful the woman was welcoming, Luz nodded. "I'm here to see Diego, but he doesn't seem to be home. He hasn't been answering his phone. I'm worried."
No doubt remembering Luz was a Texan, Jacinta switched to English. "Perhaps he went away for a few days with his woman."
"Several days ago, Pilar well, she disappeared. Diego said she was taken and he was going to find her. He promised to call, but " Luz swallowed her spiraling emotionshe had to keep a level head.
"When did you last hear from him?"
"Three days ago. I've called and called."
"Three days he could be anywhere."
Jacinta Herrera appeared as concerned as she, Luz thought, trying not to panic as the woman crossed to the face masks and stared at them for a moment.
Luz shook her head. "You don't think"
"I think anything might have happened. The drug cartel in this area is very dangerous."
"Diego didn't do drugs. And he wouldn't have sold them, either. He hates what drugs have done to people he knows."
"What about his woman?"
"Pilar? I-I don't know. He never said anything about it if she was into drugs. If she was do you really think dealing with the drug trade had something to do with her disappearance?"
Jacinta shrugged. "Terrible things happen to people in this part of the world." She looked again to the masks. Touched one. "My own niece and her teenage daughter "
Luz gasped. "I'm so sorry." This part of the world was barely more than a two-hour drive from her home. "Were they ever recovered?"
A slight smile frozen to her full lips, Jacinta shook her head.
The breath caught in Luz's throat and her stomach shook. "Surely not Diego " she choked out.
"I will pray for him that it is not so."
"What do I do? I mean how do I find out?"
Jacinta shrugged. "If Diego and Pilar were taken, it is out of our hands."
"It has to be in someone's hands!" But whose?
"The Mexican government does not condone human trafficking, yet it has not been able to stop the trade. The authorities do not seem to think it merits an all-out war against the perpetrators."
"Maybe that's not it any more than drugs," Luz said, trying to be hopeful. "Maybe Pilar ran away for some totally personal reason and Diego just went after her."
"Perhaps. But you can usually reach him, yes?"
"Maybe something happened to his cell phone."
"Perhaps," Jacinta said again.
But Luz could tell the other woman wasn't convinced. "If I could look through Diego's things, I might be able to find something, some clue " Maybe even the cell. He might have left it behind and so was unable to reach her.
After considering the request for a moment, Jacinta nodded. "I will let you into his rooms."
The climb to the fourth-floor apartment left Luz breathless. Or perhaps it wasn't the climb at all. She ran most mornings and worked out three times a week, so she had terrific stamina.
Perhaps it was the certainty that Diego was gone, taken from her as swiftly as he'd found her. She'd only learned she had a half brother a half-dozen years ago, when they'd gone to the same university. Diego had chosen the University of Texas at San Antonio purposely so that his father would have the opportunity to claim him at last. A young man's pipe dream. Instead, Luz had learned about Diego and embraced a relationship with the brother she hadn't even known existed.
Now she might have lost him forever.
They'd drugged his food for days, maybe for weekshe'd lost track of how long he'd been a prisoner. For most of that time, he'd forgotten who he was, how he'd gotten in this place. He'd had no will to try to get away. He'd simply survived in a vacuum.
Then one day they'd punished him for being too slow, not just with another brutal whipping, but by withholding his evening meal as well.
"Maybe an empty belly will make you work harder tomorrow, gringo!"
The stocky guard had kicked him and left him face-down in his cell. A chain fastened to a metal ankle bracelet had kept him anchored to the wall.
By morning, things had started coming back to him.
His nameQuinlan McKenna Farrell.
His jobSpecial Agent for ICE, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
His homeoriginally a ranch in South Dakota, now an apartment in San Antonio.
When he wasn't working undercover
Remembering all thatand that he wasn't an animal to be forced, sometimes whipped, into doing hard labor in the fields and in the closed-off, airless building where they'd processed the plants into drugshe'd stopped eating several days ago.
Once he'd figured it out, how they were doing this to him, he'd flushed the food down the toilet in his cell.
Once his mind had cleared completely, he'd formulated an escape plan.
The first rays of light penetrated the cell window. He could hear muffled noises and voices. They were serving breakfast to the "workers." The prisoners were bunked in small groups, none of them isolated and chained as he was. He'd noted that as he'd been brought back to his cell the last few days. The others might be physically strong men, but their wills were weak. Or maybe it was the drugs at work that depleted them mentally just as it had done to him.
Only he was chained to the wall like an animal.
Not for much longer.
Quin lay on the floor, sprawled half on his back, half on his side, as if he'd simply collapsed. He let his eyes drift next to closed, remaining open in slits just wide enough to see a slight blur through his lashes.
The door opening
Legs coming toward him
"Hey, gringo, get up and eat! You don't get no sick days here."
The guard laughed. Quin didn't respond, didn't so much as tighten a muscle, even knowing what was coming. The toe of the guard's boot caught him in the side, hard, jerking Quin's inert body. It took all his will not to respond too soon.
And then the guard did what Quin had hoped for. He leaned forward, one hand still holding the bowl of drugged slop, the other reaching for Quin's shoulder.
"Hey, get up!"
Quin flashed his eyes open. "Okay."
And then Quin grabbed the lowered arm and pulled the guard down so fast that he didn't have time to react. The bowl flew out of his hand, and the slop flew out of the bowl to splatter the walls of the small room.
Quin wrapped the chain around the guard's neck. The other man fought it made unintelligible noises tried to get his fingers under the tightening vise. His fury and fear pummeled Quin, but he steadied himself against the roiling emotions. He gave the chain a sharp twist and the guard immediately went as still as a marionette whose strings were dropped.
Breathing hard, Quin needed a moment to rid himself of the dead man's effect on him. Being an empath could be a negative in his profession. He had his grandmother, Moira McKenna, to thank for what, in his mind, was a weakness he didn't need.
He steadied inside and got to work.
Hanging from the guard's belt, the keys were easy to find. The small one undid the leg iron. Next, Quin confiscated the man's weaponstwo handguns and a knifeand armed himself.
After picking up the key ring, he slid to the door and listened for any other guards who might be around. Nothing. He guessed theyEl Jefe or whoever gave orders in that bastard's steadfigured drugged men didn't need more than one guard at mealtime. Quin poked his head out, took a quick look around, then left the cell. The other prisoners were intent on their breakfast.
"Stop eating!" he whispered as he opened the first cage. "Your food is drugged."
Looking at him with half-vacant eyes, the other men kept shoveling the gruel into their mouths. Quin shook his head. He didn't think anyone understood. Still, he opened the other two doors.
"Come out. If you get by the guards, you can all go home."
"Home?" one of the men called out.
"To your women and children."
A wave of longing and desperation coming off the men suddenly struck him like a physical blow. One of the prisoners dropped a bowl and made for the door. Another followed. And another.
Quin watched in dismay. Their minds and bodies were already slowed by the new infusion of drugs. They were stumbling all over each other. He couldn't just leave them here, wherever here was. They were following him now, clumsy and noisy, murmuring the names of their loved ones. Nearly a dozen unarmed, desperate men following him
He couldn't leave them.
Not now. Not when he'd opened their cages. The guards outside this hellhole were fully armed.
Quin's gut roiled and his chest tightened as he realized what he had done.
Dear God, now he was responsible for all their lives!
Although she'd been in Diego's place a dozen times, Luz didn't know where to start.
"I need to get back to my shop," Jacinta said. "Let me know when you leave."
Luz wandered around the main room, touching the things her brother had touched, stopping at the framed photograph of the two of them together.