Be careful what you wish for.
The desert wind was blowing hard outside. Despite the close, suffocating heat, Mia shivered convulsively as little pebbles pinged against the fuselage of the Cessna 206 like buckshot. Her nerves were on fire. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could stand being locked up in this tight, dark space.
What was wrong? Had she been set up? The plane, which sat on a dirt runway outside the tall walls of Tavio Morales’s immense outlaw compound, should have been airborne for el norte, translation – the United States – hours ago.
Mia felt faint and slightly woozy as well as nauseated from the marijuana fumes, which reminded her, of all things, of the woodsy, slightly sweet stink of skunk urine back home on the Golden Spurs Ranch. Mopping at the sweat on her brow with her sleeve, she plucked her soaked blouse off her breasts. Then a gust rocked the plane so hard, the towering bales shifted in the cargo hold, several of them falling on her.
When they struck her cheek, knocking her down, she screamed. Then she clamped a hand over her mouth. Being locked up was horrible, but being crushed was even worse.
Her heart thudding, she wriggled free of the heavy bales and sat up, straining to listen for the running footsteps of Tavio’s thugs outside or a nervous spray of machine gun fire. When nobody stomped up with assault rifles or machetes, she fought to calm down, sucking in big gulps of air. All the deep breathing did was to make her grow even woozier from the marijuana.
In the total blackness, the thin walls of the sweltering Cessna felt like they were closing in on her. To calm herself, she tried to imagine that she was loping bareback on one of the Golden Spurs’ endless green pastures instead of lying here trapped in this airless prison, fearing imminent suffocation.
Ever since she’d gotten locked in the attic as a child at the Golden Spurs and that big, yellow-eyed rat had bitten her, causing her to have those awful rabies shots, she’d been afraid of two things – rats and being locked up. Then, after this year, her list of scary things had grown much longer.
Now here she was, a stowaway in a coffin like cargo hold that was as hot as a furnace and getting hotter, and all because she was so desperate to get back to her little girl and her mother and her father and the Golden Spurs.
She wanted her life back.
Would she die here instead? Probably. Her throat tightened. Who would raise her little girl, Vanilla, then? Watch her grow up? Who was raising her now?
Her mother? Lizzy? Had Lizzy watched Vanilla’s first step? Heard her say her first word? Lizzy. Always Lizzy.
Vanilla would be a feisty toddler now. Was she chubby or slim? Docile or as ornery as a terrible two could be? What Mia wouldn’t give to know.
Everybody she loved believed she’d been dead for more than a year, which gave her an eerie, unsettling sensation. It was as if the real her had ceased to exist. If something went wrong in the next few hours, Tavio would probably torture and kill her, and her friends and family would never know she’d been alive all these months, thinking of them, longing for them. Shanghai would never know how much she still loved him in spite of everything, either. Not that he would care.
“Oh, Shanghai . . . ” As she sat in the dark, feeling lost and alone, she willed him to think of her, to remember her, at least sometimes.
The nightmarish seconds ticked by like hours. What was Tavio waiting for? Would Marco, his half brother, who was to be the pilot tonight, ever climb in and rev the engine? Would they ever take off? And what if they did? Would DEA agents really be there to save her as Julio had promised? Could she trust Julio?
It got so hot her skin prickled and burned as if she had a heat rash. She had to get out of here, to feel fresh air on her face and soon, or go mad.
No. Ever since Julio had risked his life to hide her, assuring her the plane was flying into a trap, she’d known this was her best shot at freedom. Clenching her nails into her palm, she fought to hold onto her sanity and courage.
Somebody up there had a twisted sense of humor. Mia wasn’t naming names, because she didn’t want to tempt fate.
I don’t want to sound whiney . . . Yes, I know I have abandonment issues because Daddy didn’t want me and neither did Shanghai, not even when I told him I was pregnant with our baby after that night in Vegas. Yes, I know I prayed for the next man I met to be struck by a thunderbolt and love me so much, he’d never want to let me go.
But Tavio Morales and his sick obsession? A drug lord?
Oh…still…Mia knew it wasn’t a good sign about her sanity that she talked to herself so much. But could a woman who’d gone through even half of what she had with Tavio and his criminal army for more than a year remain entirely sane? She knew she was only holding on by a thread.
Fifteen months ago she’d been married to Cole Knight, having married him because he was Shanghai’s brother and for a host of other wrong-minded reasons, which was ironic because everyone in Spur County had thought Cole had married her to get her stock in the ranch.
When things had settled down, she’d had a new baby daughter, Vanilla, to raise and had been working with the horse program at the ranch. If her life hadn’t been totally what she’d wished for, at least it had seemed all planned out and stable.
On a whim, because Daddy had said he was flying, too, she’d chosen to fly with Cole the day he’d crashed their plane into the Gulf of Mexico. Cole was probably dead, and there had been times, hellish times, that she wished she were dead, too, like when she’d heard screams coming from that forbidden zone at the compound. Listening to those pitiful cries, she’d suspected that Tavio’s men were torturing their prisoners before they murdered them. From her bedroom window, she’d seen blindfolded, handcuffed people brought to those buildings against the north wall of the hacienda, and she’d never seen any of them leave.
The irony was she would have drowned if Tavio Morales, who’d just stolen a yacht, no doubt after murdering its owners, hadn’t been so high on his crack-laced cigarettes he’d seen diving into those stormy, icy forty-foot seas and plucking her to safety as an adventure.
She knew he’d removed her wet clothes that first night, that he’d wrapped her in blankets and warmed her with his own body. Not held her or stroked her or even kissed her, because he was waiting for her to want him, too.
She loathed his attentiveness and deadly patience. Obsessed with her, he’d nursed her back to health and brought her to his rancho in the Chihuahua Desert. He’d treated her as kindly as a man of his sort keeping a woman prisoner knew how, she supposed.
When he’d found out she liked horses, he’d let her groom and ride his fine, Polish-Arabian stallion, Shabol. Except for those horrible, forbidden zones, she’d been free to roam and ride Shabol, as long as she stayed within the confines of the high walls surrounding his adobe mansion.
When she’d wanted something to read, he’d brought her newspapers. Sometimes he ranted about the stories written about himself and his operation by a certain Terence Collins, who was a liberal reporter for the Border Observer in El Paso.
Even though there was no free press in Mexico, these articles were translated and reprinted in all the Mexican papers owned by Federico Valdez, who Tavio seemed to hate with a special vengeance. The coverage incensed Tavio, mostly because his business ran more smoothly if he kept his affairs quiet. But also she sensed some deep personal vendetta between him and Valdez.
Tavio had threatened the reporter, and Collins had printed every threat, which added to his fame.
Tavio would turn red as soon as he saw his name in a headline or a sidebar. “I will kill him!” he would say as he wadded up the paper. “I will kill them both.”
“No,” Mia would plead.
“Soon! You will see, Angelita.”
Publicity made the officials Tavio bribed look like fools who couldn’t do their jobs. If Tavio got too much press, he explained, the federal policecomandantes would be forced to demand expensive drug busts to make themselves look good. The United States would put pressure on the politicians in Mexico City, who might demand his imprisonment or death. After all, individual drug lords were replaceable.
Tavio was camera shy and banned all cameras from the compound because he didn’t want recent pictures of himself in the newspapers.
But despite his problems he thought of her happiness. When he realized how lonely she was in her room with nothing except week-old, Mexican newspapers to pore over, he’d sent his brother-in-law’s girlfriend, Delia, to be her maid. Delia was sweet, if down-trodden, but dear Delia couldn’t be with her all the time, either, so he’d rescued a kitten his men had been about to use as target practice and had given it to her. She’d named the poor little black cat Negra.
When Delia had confided to her about her troubles with Chito, Mia had observed Chito more closely. He was Tavio’s second-in-command and the worst of a bad bunch. A man of dark temperament, he was as sullen as Tavio was outgoing. Chito always wore a grisly necklace made of real human bones. When he gazed at Mia, he formed the habit of stroking his neck, as if to call attention to the gruesome ornament.
Tavio spent time with her himself, of course. He liked to drive around in the desert in his truck, shooting at whatever poor creature darted in his path. When he could, he took her with him on these outings. They were always trailed by jeeps full of armed bodyguards.
Strangely she did not find him totally unattractive. If he hadn’t had that scar across his right cheek where a bullet had creased him, he would have been as handsome as a movie star. A born leader, he was ruggedly virile and charismatic. Unlike his men, who were mostly short, dark and stockily built, Tavio was tall with light skin, thin fine features, an ink-black mustache and bright jet eyes that flashed with intelligence and intuition.
He liked people. He paid attention to them. He understood them. When he turned those eyes on her, she was terrified he could read her thoughts. Once he’d told her that when he knew a person’s weaknesses and strengths, he knew how to use them.
“People are my tools,” he’d said in Spanish, which was the language they usually spoke, for she was more fluent in his tongue than he was in hers. “I have to know who can do what for me, no?”
And me? Why has he toyed with me so long?
His mother was the most feared curandera, or witch, in Ciudad Juarez. His men believed he had special powers, and that was why he could manipulate people so easily.
He was as fierce and brave as any warrior or pirate king. He was a good father and son. His mother had had some sort of breakdown, and he called Ciudad Juarez constantly to make sure she was being properly cared for.
He was smart, a criminal genius probably. He ran a huge empire that reached to the highest levels in the government from this remote rancho. Army commandants came to visit him on a regular basis. They strutted around his mansion and barns, and he let them take whatever they wanted. Always, they left laughing, with thick wads of pesos stuffed in the bulging pockets of their uniforms. Politicians from Mexico City came as well. When they drove away in the stolen trucks he’d given them, he cursed them for being so greedy. Then he bragged to her, usually in front of an audience, that he had protection at the highest levels in Mexico.
Tavio was responsible. He took international phone calls on his various phones. He worked hard, sometimes day and night, as he had for the last three days and nights, taking pills and chain-smoking those crack-laced cigarettes she hated because they made him edgier and less predictable. He was a highly sexual man, and she was increasingly unnerved by the way his eyes followed her.
He bought her beautiful clothes, including French lingerie, but she refused to wear them. She never smiled at him, either, for fear of charming him.
He wore a gold-plated, semiautomatic in a shoulder holster and had a habit at shooting at targets that took his fancy.
Despite his kindnesses and obsession to have her, Mia never forgot that he was a vicious, notorious drug lord, who claimed to be the most powerful man in all of northern Mexico. He said he was linked with another powerful cartel headed by Juan Garza in Columbia, and she believed him.
Terrible things happened here. Hostages were brought here, some of them girlfriends of Tavio’s men, girls whom the men said had cheated on them. Sometimes she heard screams and then gunshots. She had watched men carrying heavy sacks out into the desert and feared the worst. Tavio had touched her red hair once and told her she would be smart to love him, because there were many graves in his desert.
“Women you have loved before?” she had whispered.
He had laughed with such conceit she’d known there had been countless women before her. She’d sensed how his awesome power had corrupted him.
“Are you threatening me?” she’d asked.
“No, my love. But I am not a patient man.” His soft voice had been deadly.
“You are married to Estela.”
“This is different – you and me. For you – I send my wife away. This makes Chito, her brother, very mad, and that is a dangerous thing to do. I am not like other men. I bore easily. I live for danger. Still, I cannot divorce my wife, the mother of my sons. Not even for you. I am Mexican. Catholic.”
Mia had been amazed that he, a notorious drug lord and addict, saw himself as a religious person. Estela had had such jealous fits of rage when he’d brought Mia home, throwing pots and pans at Tavio, that Tavio, to preserve the peace, had personally driven her and their two sons in an armed convoy of jeeps to another walled and heavily guarded mansion he owned in Piedras Negras.
If only Shanghai could ever have been half so fascinated by her as Tavio, none of this would ever have happened. When she’d gotten pregnant and had tried to tell him, he would have listened and believed her. She wouldn’t have thought she had to marry Cole. She wouldn’t have been in that plane crash.
Suddenly her eyes stung. What was wrong with her that the men she’d wanted, first her father and then Shanghai, hadn’t loved her, and a criminal like Tavio did?
The wind was picking up. Rocks hit the fuselage like bullets now. Gusts made the plane shudder. Where was Marco?
Wrapping her arms around herself and bending over, Mia swallowed.
She had to get out of here!
Suddenly she heard shouts outside. The cockpit door was slammed open. Then Chito yelled, “Angelita, come out! We know you’re in there.”
Tavio didn’t know her real name because she’d been afraid to tell him. When she’d pretended she suffered from amnesia, he’d nicknamed her Angelita.
“Tavio, he send me. The peasant, Ramiro, he tell him hours ago where you are. Tavio pay Ramiro. Then he break many things with his gun. He say to surround the plane until you get so hot you come out. But you don’t come out, and he’s scared you’re dead. And we have to fly.”
When she didn’t answer, Chito yelled at his men to unload the plane and drag her out. It took them less than ten minutes to unload enough of the heavy bales to reach her. They shouted to Chito when they found her, and he then climbed inside. As always he had a gun in his belt and a knife, which she’d seen him throw with deadly accuracy, in his cowboy boot.
With a low growl, he crawled toward her, grabbed her wrist and yanked her from the plane. She fell to the ground so hard, she lay there stunned for a minute.
“Get the hell out of here,” he told his men, who at his gruff tone, sprinted toward the high adobe walls of Tavio’s desert fortress.
When she would have run from Chito, he grabbed her hand and tugged her unwillingly behind him until they reached the compound. She thought he would take her to Tavio’s mansion in the middle of the compound. Instead he headed for the forbidden buildings that lined the north wall. Opening a door of one of the low dwellings, he threw her across the threshold. The tiny room was dark and dank and reeked of urine and feces and vomit.
He screwed a low wattage bulb into a socket. In its dim light she saw chairs, ropes, a cot, slop buckets, whips, handcuffs and electric cattle prods.
When she gasped, he grinned.
Did he intend to torture her, rape her? Had Tavio given her to Chito? With a cry, she turned to run.
Laughing, Chito slammed the door and barred her way.
“You run from Tavio,” Chito said, his thin smile chilling her, as he fingered the irregularly shaped bone fragments strung on a gold chain that Delia said came from Pablito’s skeleton, a fellow drug dealer Chito had shot for double-dealing and dragged behind his jeep in the desert for hours while he drank tequila. “Maybe you want me instead?” He leered at her.
“Go to hell!”
He laughed, but his black eyes were as cold as ice chips as he leaned down and placed a wedge of wood beneath the door. “Who are you, bitch? Who hid you in that airplane?”
When he lunged for her, she kicked him in the shin and then kneed him in the crotch.
He doubled over, grunting in pain. He tugged the knife loose from his boot. “Now Tavio will realize how dangerous you are.”
Adrenaline pumped through her as she raced for the door. He picked up a pair of handcuffs, shook them so they clinked and laughed at her when she pulled at the door and it didn’t budge.
“He has killed many for less, ginga. But you very sexy. I see why Tavio like you. If you are nice to me, maybe I put in a good word for you, so he don’t kill you. Now—who helped you?”
She hesitated and watched him warily, her gaze flicking to the white chunks of bone at his throat. He was small, only an inch taller than she was, but he was strong and muscular. He could kill her in an instant if he wanted to.
He had black hair and dark skin and a sullen mouth. He had a hair-trigger temper and suffered from paranoia. He didn’t get along easily with anybody. Not even Tavio. Delia frequently sported black eyes and bruises. Once Mia had asked her why she stayed with him.
Delia’s big brown eyes, which were always so sad and hungry, had widened with a strange yearning. Then all the light had gone out of her thin, young face.
“You rich in America. Everybody rich. I see TV. Even the women. You don’t understand how it is down here. For women like me. Chito, he protect me. He don’t share me with nobody.”
“And that’s enough? Do you like him? Love him?”
“My father, he was worse. My older sister . . . she run away . . . to Ciudad Juarez.” She strangled on a sob as if there were some horrible end to that tale. “Chito, he help me. He give my family food and money. You lucky. Tavio, he protect you. You should be nice to Tavio.”
Suddenly Chito lunged for Mia, the lust in his eyes, his strength and the stench of his garlic breath bringing her cruelly back to the present. Catching her again even as she pummeled his thick chest, he dragged her screaming to the cot, where he threw her down. When she fell, her head struck a wooden bar on the cot, and she could only stare up at him in dazed confusion.
“Be still, or I will hurt you worse.” He smiled at her as he took his time unbuttoning his trousers.
She was struggling to sit up when the thick wooden door behind them crashed against the adobe wall. Suddenly Tavio was a black giant in the doorway, his legs widely spread apart. He twirled his golden gun idly.
Instantly the air grew even more charged with electric, hostile danger.
Sweat popping across his brow, Chito jumped back from the cot, his knife falling with a soft thud to the dirt floor.
Feeling like a trapped animal, Mia got up and hurled herself into Tavio’s arms and clung to him, shaking, even though he smelled of those awful crack-laced cigarettes.
“Why is your heart beating like a rabbit’s?” Tavio whispered against her ear, pressing her closer for a second. He turned toward Chito. “I told you to bring her to me. What are you two doing here?”
“Teaching her a lesson since you won’t.”
She scarcely dared draw a breath as the two men exchanged dark, dangerous looks.
“I will deal with you later for the trouble you cost me, Angelita. Go to your room,” Tavio said, releasing her in an instant. When she hesitated, his whisper grew vicious. “Go! Ahora!”
“Don’t kill him.”
“Don’t tell me what to do, woman!” Although his voice was soft, every word bit her, especially the last one.
And then to Chito he said, still in that soft, deadly tone as he knelt and retrieved the knife. “What were you doing with my woman alone—here? Why was she on that cot?” He began to curse and make crude sexual accusations that terrified her.
As she walked toward the door, she heard Chito’s shrill, raised yelps. Then Chito’s knife whizzed past her and hit the exact center of the door.
She gasped. Just like that – she could have had a blade in the back of her neck and been dead.
A slop bucket hit the wall, splashing its foul contents. Chito screamed that he wanted her punished.
“It is not for you to punish my woman.” Another bucket was knocked over, increasing the sewerlike stench. “I will punish her myself.”
“She know too much. It’s dangerous. She tried to escape in Marco’s plane. We can’t trust her.”
“I never trust her before,” Tavio said. “So – she try to escape? So what? She is a gringa. A nobody.”
“Don’t be so sure. A traitor helped her. She will betray us. I can feel it. In my gut.”
“Let me do the thinking. With my brain.”
“You are married to my sister. This woman . . . ”
“She has nothing to do with my marriage. Your sister is still my wife.”
“The men snicker behind your back. They say it is sick the way you follow her around like a lovesick dog. Like you have no balls, mano.”
“I will prove to you and to her that I have balls—tonight. I will take her. You can stand outside in the hall and listen to her screams. But first, I will teach you a lesson.”
She heard fists, blows, a life-and-death scuffle. Chairs were overturned. A body hit the ground. When gunshots exploded, and metal pinged, Mia pulled the knife out of the door and then ran all the way to her second-story bedroom. She went to her bathroom.
Setting the knife down, she stared at the wild woman in the mirror. Her face was still flushed from having gotten so overheated in the airplane and from her struggles with Chito. Her own sweat had plastered her hair to her skull. Not that she cared.
She was too afraid. If Chito came instead of Tavio, she would either stab him or herself. She couldn’t bear for him to touch her ever again.
Too upset to shower, she ran a shaky hand through her hair. The wet tangles just fell back into her eyes. Squeezing her eyes shut, she fought against her rising fear.
For a long time she stood there, paralyzed. Finally Negra came up and rubbed her leg. Then the cat began to purr. Picking the animal up, she returned to her bedroom and sat down on the bed, where she began to stroke the cat’s soft fur. Doing so restored her a little. If only she knew where Julio lived, she would try to find him and warn him and tell him that he must flee.
For a while Negra endured her affection. Then as if sensing her nervousness, the independent creature sprang to the floor and curled up to sleep on a little rug under a chair. A door slammed downstairs, and she heard Tavio shout to his men.
Feeling only slightly relieved, she placed the knife under her pillow and waited. As the awful seconds ticked by, Mia began to feel dull and hopeless. She could do nothing but sit here and wait.
Hours later, when Tavio still hadn’t come upstairs, she finally drove herself to get up from the bed and shower. As she toweled off, she was surprised that such a little thing had made her feel better. After she dressed, she paced back and forth at the end of her bed, her heart racing every time she heard Tavio or one of his men shout angrily below.
She should go to bed, and yet she was afraid of the bed and what it might mean tonight. As she stared at the melon-colored adobe walls that imprisoned her, they seemed to close in on her more than ever. She wanted to run, but she knew that behind those high, thick, adobe walls, Tavio Morales’s immense, adobe mansion was a veritable fortress. An army of gunmen patrolled the rancho and airstrips in trucks and SUVs.
A natural spring with cold, icy water bubbled up from the ground not far from the stables, so there was a sure source of water. Tall cottonwood trees grew around the sparkling pool.
Beyond Tavio’s private army, every Mexican peasant, poor men like Ramiro, in the desert belonged to Tavio as well. If one of their children was sick, Tavio paid for the doctor, buying their undying loyalty.
“They are my ears and eyes,” he’d told her. “I love them. And they love me. I protect them, and they protect me. I very important man here. I am much loved.” He’d smiled as if that thought pleased him. “If you try to escape, my little friends will tell me. If anyone try to help you, they will tell me, and I kill him.”
Remembering Ramiro watching her again, she bit her lips. Worrying about Julio, she went to the barred window. She had to get away or go mad. She had to.
Since the ranch house was located on a slight rise above the desert floor, Mia’s plush room with its heavy furniture and red velvet spread and draperies had a view of the Chihuahua Desert and Tavio’s airstrip. She’d spent long hours watching the dusty two-lane road that led across the parched earth to the airstrips. Sometimes she’d watched huge dirt devils race across the barren, beige moonscape, and always she had wished she were free to whirl away.
She’d watched the birds, the vultures, hawks and the eagles, with special envy because they could fly. In her other life, she had taken freedom for granted.
If I’m ever free again, I will treasure every single moment.
She had to get out of here.
“Oh, Shanghai . . . ” She called to him, willing him to think of her, willing him to care, willing him to come.