When Samantha Henderson ran into trouble recovering a lost statue in the Peruvian jungle, Daniel McCullough believed he'd made the right decision in not promoting her at Finders, Inc.
But when forced to work together to track down the figurine--and the mysterious man who had it--Daniel and Sam came face-to-face with a network of dangerous suspects. Each day brought them closer to finding their silent enemy, even as their feelings for each other intensified.
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"The most effective disguise isn't."
Samantha Henderson drew the tattered edges of Bertha-the-street-lady's shawl around her and wondered if her boss had ever been reduced to this.
The slap of footsteps paused, stopped just behind her. She made sure the brim of Bertha's straw hat hid her face.
"Look around. She's got to be here."
Sam hunched over, hacked out a loud, chesty cough and turned it into a long-winded rumble that suggested an unhealthy lung condition. After a loud expletive, the feet moved a safer distance away.
"What do I do now? He'll kill me if he finds out I lost her."
"Check the market. If I find her, I'll hang on to her. We've got to be there at four. Now go. El Zopilote doesn't like complications."
Four? Sam checked her watch. She had to be ready to move, and that meant getting rid of this disguise. If that statue was going anywhere, she had to know. That's why she was there.
El Zopilote—The Vulture. Was he the buyer? She'd assumed Varga was a small-time thief, the other guy a pal he'd paid to help. But if they both worked for this el Zopilote...
The wind played with her hat, tugged it against its thin strings. She reached to grab it, noticed Bertha's nod. Time to go.
While Varga had his back turned, Samantha limped over to the black wrought-iron fence that led to a courtyard, one of many in Lima. This one had a bougainvillea tree in full flower—good cover. From here she could look out onto the square. Varga and friend loped across the busy street.
She tossed her hat onto the ground, peeled off her ratty shawl, voluminous skirt and peasant blouse until all she wore were her jeans and T-shirt. Relief from the heat of two layers of clothing swept across her darkened skin. Repeatedly applying the self-tanner had ensured she was as dark as any native Peruvian, but now she needed a new look. She undid her braids, finger-combed her hair loose so that it shielded her face. Now she looked like a tourist.
While unearthing her backpack from the brambles of the tree, Sam peeked through the branches. On the corner across the street, Varga stood speaking to his friend. He had a package tucked under one arm.
So he still had the statue. Sam pulled on her sunglasses, ducked out of her hiding place and ambled down the street to a bench half a block down. She sat, picked up the newspaper and pretended to read. Following Juan Varga wasn't the problem. Figuring out why he did the things he did was. He should have handed the statue over long ago instead of traipsing across South America. If el Zopilote had something to do with his actions, maybe this four o'clock meeting would give her an opportunity to find out why.
Making informed decisions about her next move was impossible. All she could do was follow Varga and wait for answers. In the meantime, she'd check in. She dialed Finders, Inc. and waited. For the third time in three days she couldn't get through. After several attempts she tried a different number. The phone rang endlessly.
A two-hour time difference between here and the offices in Victoria meant that a certain someone who kept erratic hours should be in to take her call on his private line. Except that Daniel McCullough did not pick up. Either the phone system wasn't working properly or her cell phone was faulty. Both major mistakes for an agent of her experience.
Samantha wasn't where she was supposed to be. In fact she hadn't made contact with another agent since yesterday and that hadn't been through Finders' regular channels. Nothing about this recovery was going according to plan. In desperation, she called a local number she'd been given for emergencies. A nonhuman voice asked her to leave a message.
"This is Samantha Henderson. I'm in Lima, still with Varga, who is smuggling the statue from location to location. No idea why. I tried the office, couldn't get through. Sorry."
Her target was on the move again.
Sam shoved her phone in her pocket, hitched her pack over her shoulder and followed, using the flush of tourists as cover. When he rented a car, she did the same. When Varga climbed on a northbound train, Sam followed, near enough to keep an eye on him, far enough away that most people would think she was part of a tourist group snapping pictures.
Four o'clock came and went as the train chugged in and out of villages, carrying them toward the Andes. When Varga bedded down in his sleeper, Sam kept watch, but her suspicions worked overtime. The man was too casual, as if something had changed, and yet he talked to no one, received no phone calls. He simply rode the train. Three days later she was dirty, tired and fed up when he finally disembarked in Iquitos, doorway to the Amazon.
Varga checked into a hotel long enough to eat, shower and change. Sam bought a new shirt, scrubbed up in the hotel washroom, then waited outside the restaurant until he took off again, across the city this time. When he finally arrived at a small wharf, she tried her phone again, hoping for advice.
"Sam? I can hardly hear you."
The line went dead. She hovered near the pay phones, but had barely finished dialing when Varga and two men who'd obviously been waiting for him climbed aboard a vessel and prepared to take off.
Sam edged closer, pretended to negotiate with a fish seller.Varga and company were boisterous, almost jubilant as they prepared to cast off. She couldn't hear everything, but the words el Padre Dulce were repeated several times. It sounded like they were traveling upriver to meet this person. Sam had to follow. The question was how.
As Varga's boat pulled out of the harbor, she made up her mind and approached an older man who was loading boxes onto his flat boat.
"Hola, señor!" In rapid Spanish she asked the man about el Padre Dulce. He nodded and began gesticulating, explaining that he was taking these gifts from an unknown beneficiary to the padre. Was she, too, traveling to see him?
"S ," she agreed, smiling widely. The man, Ramon, offered to take her with him. The padre apparently loved visitors. Once the cargo was safely stowed, they were soon chugging down the river.
Ramon had a pair of binoculars that Sam borrowed. Several times she spotted Varga ahead of them. The other boat's erratic speed puzzled her—sometimes they revved far ahead, sometimes they barely moved—until she saw a bottle go flying overboard and realized the men were drinking. Ramon kept his speed steady, pointed out a toucan that stretched overhead. To relax she concentrated on finding species of birds she already knew: capped heron and three species of kingfishers. But her nerves remained tightly strung.
If only she could figure out why Varga was taking this trip.
The humidity added to her growing misgivings as the river drew them along its coiling, rasping course. The jungle, lush and teeming with life, hung on either side—beautiful, lowering, and filled with foreboding shadows. Every so often a waterfall cascaded down a smooth rock face in staircases carved by time.
The waning afternoon light moved in cubes as the forest grew thicker, bushy, dense and even more humid. Still the boats chugged along. With nothing else to do, Sam harked back to that conversation in Daniel's office.
You can't be a loner. You have to follow the rules, Samantha. Just like everyone else. And that includes reporting in, no matter where you are.
She grimaced, pulled out her phone and dialed Finders, Inc. again. "It's me. I've left Lima and am—hello?" They'd been cut off. "So much for your rules, Daniel."
She slid the phone closed, but a moment later reopened it and dialed again, this time to the routing service Finders had set up to pass on messages from their agents in the field.
"I'm following the statue, as ordered," she said, after identifying herself. "Varga has been joined by two men. I think they work for el Zopilote, whoever that is. Please investigate that name, see if you can find some background. I believe he's the one who's giving the orders, or perhaps buying the statue from Varga."
Daniel would be surprised she was adhering to his rules so closely, but she wanted that promotion. She tucked the phone back into the pocket of her jeans, leaned against some boxes, constantly scanning the area. Every pore of her body sensed a threat—silent for now, but present nonetheless.
Ramon shared his bread and cheese with her, assured her they were on the right path to this el Padre's place. Five hours later they finished the last of his sodas.What seemed like aeons after that the motor began to sputter. Sam's misgivings escalated when her phone showed no signal. She had no means of telling anyone exactly where she was.
When the sputtering grew worse, Ramon steered toward shore and shut the motor off. She could hear the steady put-putting of the other boat not far ahead. At least she hadn't lost them. Yet.
Ramon poked and probed the motor. "El carburador." Carburetor. He grinned when the engine coughed to life.
Given the amount of black smoke they were spewing, Sam worried the other boat would come back to investigate, but as their boat limped along, hugging the shoreline, she caught glimpses of the other craft. Forest-green turned to gray, then brown, then purple as the sunlight faded.
"Can't you do something?" she begged, peering through the binoculars. She couldn't see or hear Varga's boat.
"I'm sorry, señorita. It is an old boat and we must go slowly. Perhaps when we get to el Padre's camp, he will help us."
El Padre Dulce. That name again. Sweet Father—an odd title certainly. But Sam wasn't looking to find a priest. She wanted to know why Varga had come here with the statue.
"El Padre Dulce is a good man. All the people here love him very much." Ramon patted the engine with pride. "He helped me buy this boat. He helps many people. Today I am bringing him gifts."
"I'm sure he's wonderful," she agreed. "But I was hoping we would catch up with the other boat."
"All will be well, señorita. God cares for his children. Do not worry."
How did you argue with that?As the muddy water slid past, Samantha gave up pretending she was in control. Here on the river she was exposed, vulnerable. Using her GPS, she quickly sent the coordinates to Finders' satellite—just in case. Maybe it was those fingers of dusk creeping down the banks like a stalker, or maybe it was the cackling sound emanating from the forest that freaked her, but her internal radar now switched to high.
The motor coughed, wheezed and then stopped again. Ramon paddled toward the bank.
"Señorita, I must work on this motor. It is not much farther. Perhaps you wish to walk on shore while I work?" Clearly he didn't want her bugging him while he fiddled with the motor.
Since Sam desperately needed some privacy and a bush, she left her backpack on the bench of the boat, climbed over the hull and jumped onto the beach. Ramon watched her for a moment, and then began to quietly hum as he unveiled the inner workings of his machine. Sam chose a secluded area. Five minutes later she emerged from the grove of trees and froze.
The boat was gone. Poor Ramon floated facedown in the water, a knife sticking out of his back.
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