Outside Oaxaca, Mexico
Zoe knew her captors planned to kill her when they started leaving her hood off and let her see their faces. By now they’d figured out that her family couldn’t afford a ransom, and aid workers didn’t have much political worth.
She squirmed to find a more comfortable position. After three days, they still kept her hands tied behind her back, her feet bound at the ankles.
God, she’d been stupid. She knew the precautions, but she still fell into a routine, a regular route and a regular schedule. They’d probably watched her for days before pulling her off the street. Too bad they hadn’t done their homework on her. When they’d first shoved her into the tiny room, there’d been three other prisoners. One by one they’d all been released, and now she was alone.
As if on cue, the door to her cell opened. Her captors shoved in a hooded man. She knew the two guarding her now. The shorter one had an endless supply of sweat-stained Hawaiian shirts. The taller one specialized in tight T-shirts that showed off his physique—he was the one she was most afraid of. The only talking he did was with his fists. He’d given her the bruise she had on her cheekbone when she’d moved too slowly for his liking. She’d seen his face twice now, and didn’t doubt she’d be seeing it in her nightmares for years, if she survived.
The man they shoved in front of them was built a lot like Talks With Fists, same height and similar musculature, but he was white. Expensive jeans and tennis shoes, same type of form-fitting T-shirt as the guard. Tourist, probably. The only question on her mind was whether they’d kill her before or after he was ransomed.
“Down, you dog.” The shorter guard pushed the new captive to the ground, crouching to bind his ankles. The man didn’t fight, but sat with his head bowed.
As soon as the guards left the room, the man rose to his knees and leaned over, shaking the hood off. He was definitely a tourist. His dark hair was cropped close and gleaming; she couldn’t tell if it was dark brown or black. He had the same expensive look as his jeans. His fair skin was clear and clean shaven with just a hint of shadow, and he had the sort of profile she’d only ever seen on a movie or television screen. He wouldn’t be here long. Either he had a family with money or he worked for a company that would want him back.
She realized he was giving her the same level of scrutiny, and felt a small rush of fear. They were both bound, so surely he couldn’t hurt her, but there was something dangerous in his eyes.
Which is why she didn’t expect them to soften the way they did. “Zoe Rodriguez?”
She was too startled to answer, but just nodded.
He glanced toward the locked door and pushed himself to a crouch, the movement oddly graceful. She fought not to flinch when he came over to her. “My name’s Lee. I’m with the CIA. I’m going to get you out of here.”
The sudden lump in her throat caught her by surprise. She tried to keep her face schooled as she studied him. There was no trace of anything but sincerity in his startlingly blue eyes. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“You don’t.” He flashed a quick, humorless grin. “I’m not precisely carrying my credentials at the moment.” Another careful look over his shoulder. “Trust me until we’re out of here, and I promise I’ll show you all the proof you need.”
Zoe’s throat ached and her eyes were stinging. She would not cry in front of a stranger, but the relief was threatening to overwhelm her. “Why?” she said. “I mean, I’m nobody.”
“Médecins International doctor, working as an emergency surgeon in a refugee camp in Oaxaca—that doesn’t sound like nobody to me.” He started to say something else, but froze, then threw himself over to where the guards had initially pushed him.
Talks With Fists came in with the filthy bucket that served as a toilet, then dropped it, cursing and yelling at Lee to close his eyes. Lee did, but the guard cuffed him across the cheek before pulling the hood over his head again.
Then he retrieved the bucket and went back to Lee. Zoe knew the routine. He’d haul Lee to his feet and yank his pants down unceremoniously, and leave him to use the bucket or not. She turned away and waited for her turn. It never came. When Lee was finished, the guard left.
It was too much to bear. This was how it started, the dehumanization and humiliation that would finally let them kill her. “Hey! What the hell?”
“Zoe,” Lee hissed. She didn’t know if he understood much Spanish or not, but he had to recognize her tone.
“Come on, you son of a bitch.” The rage was spilling over and she couldn’t do anything about it. “Bring me the goddamn bucket!”
“Zoe, stop. Don’t antagonize them.”
Wordless, she started yelling, jerking at her wrists and ankles as if she could free herself with pure rage.
The door flew open and the guard came back. “Shut up, bitch.” Zoe yelled louder. Wherever they were, she already knew it didn’t matter how much noise she made. Either there were no people nearby, or the ones who were refused to get involved.
“Shut up,” the guard repeated. He grabbed her by her shirt, popping stitches in the seams. When she didn’t stop yelling, he backhanded her across the cheek that wasn’t already bruised. The pain was a flare of fire over the entire side of her face. She pistoned her legs and tried to kick him as he shook her, cursing and shouting at her to be quiet. The next blow rocked her head to the side and the world went dark.
She remembered her bed being more comfortable than this. The pillow was too unyielding, and the mattress beneath her was cold. Where were her blankets? She tried to turn over and was stopped by a strong hand. “Hey. Zoe, wake up.” A man’s voice, a little familiar. “Come on kiddo. Open your eyes.”
Her mouth was sticky and sour. “Don’t… call me kiddo.” She forced her eyelids open. The room was almost completely dark, with only faint moonlight shining through the cracks from outside. She wasn’t on her bed, or her pillow. Her head was in Lee’s lap, pillowed by one of his hands.
“What the hell were you trying to do, make him kill you?”
“He’s going to kill me anyway.” She struggled to sit up, but he wouldn’t let her. Her face and jaw ached, and a couple of her teeth felt like they might be a little loose.
“Hold still and rest for a minute.” He brushed a curl of her hair away from her eyes. “He’s not going to kill you because I’m not going to let him.”
Awareness was slowly filtering back. “Yeah, right. What are you going to do—” then it hit her. “Your hands are free. How’d you do that?” Another realization. “My hands are free.” And her feet.
“Nothing gets past you, does it?” He smiled. “You didn’t think I was going to just walk in here unprepared to get you out, did you?” He shifted and reached into his pocket, pulling out a tiny penknife.
“They didn’t search you?” The dizziness was worse than before.
“Of course they did.”
“But then how did you—never mind, I don’t want to know.”
“You’re right, you don’t.”
“I think I have a concussion,” she said. “That was… not my brightest moment.”
Lee shook his head. “Not really, no. Gutsy, though. Did you really have to pee that badly?”
She wished he would stop smiling at her. “No. I just—” Suddenly she was acutely aware that she was lying in his lap, and tried to sit up again. This time he let her. She leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes, waiting for the dizziness to pass. “It’s the next step,” she said, keeping her eyes closed. “It’s been long enough that they know there’s no ransoming me, so next they start treating me badly, ignoring that I’m human.” She tried to force a smile and keep her voice light, but she couldn’t control the break in her words. “Makes me easier to k—to kill.” That’s when the tears started stinging behind her eyes. Damn it. She swallowed and swallowed, trying to force them back.
“Hey.” The softness in his voice made it hard to keep swallowing the tears. “It’s okay.” He put an arm around her and pulled her to his shoulder. The tears burned their way past her eyelids and dripped on her cheeks. “I’m going to get you out of here. Do you believe me?” She didn’t answer, and he tilted her chin up to force her to look him in the eye. He brushed away tears with the pad of his thumb, a careful, gentle motion that only made her cry harder. “Zoe. Trust me. You have to trust me.”
Reluctantly, she nodded. What choice did she have? “Sorry if I ruined your plans.”
“My plans are flexible.” He pulled her back to his shoulder and she let him, accepting the warmth of another human being. “Tell me what happens in the morning around here. Food again? How many guards have you seen since you’ve been here? Tell me everything.”
She recounted as much as she could remember. “I didn’t actually start seeing their faces until this afternoon, so I’ve only seen two. I’ve heard maybe… four different voices? I’m not sure.”
“That’s all right. Any weapons that you’ve seen?”
Talking about details helped calm her down. She swiped away the last of the tears. Her face was probably a dirty, streaked mess. .”The men who took me had rifles. The guards only have handguns that I’ve seen.”
He nodded, and she was struck again by his eyes, now distant and thoughtful. “Okay. Try and get some sleep.”
“Will you sleep?” she asked.
“Good. Keep an eye on me. Make sure I stay responsive.”
“Zoe?” The tone of his voice made her look up at him. “I’m really sorry.” He held up strands of rope. “I have to put these back on. And the hood. In case they come in.”
A surge of panic rose and it took several breaths for her to beat it back. She nodded ruefully. “Just when I was getting circulation back in my feet.”
“I won’t tie it as tight.” He was true to his word. She was still effectively hobbled, but the rope wasn’t biting into her skin. He did the same thing for her hands, then pulled the hood over her face.
“What about you?” she asked, settling back against the wall.
“Me too,” he said. “My feet, anyway. Get some rest.”
Zoe hesitated, then rested her head against his shoulder. “Thank you.”
He sounded amused. “Just doing my job.”
The woman asleep on his shoulder was utterly remarkable. Lee had seen pictures as part of his initial briefings. He knew she’d be beautiful, but photos of her smiling at the camera didn’t do her full justice. A photograph showed her deep gray eyes and the warmth of her golden light brown skin. A photograph didn’t show the fierce intelligence in those eyes or the bright spark of her personality. Even here, after over three days in captivity, dirty and exhausted, she was a force of nature. When she’d started yelling for the guards he was equal parts terrified and awed. It could have been the end of his mission right there.
A solo mission like his was always difficult, but sometimes easier to pull off than something larger, with bigger political ramifications. If his cover was blown, he knew his higher ups would disavow any knowledge of him or his mission. He was, in government terms, a “deniable asset.”
He watched Zoe sleep, her eyes moving in REM sleep. He’d have to rouse her soon. Getting her out of here was a little more complicated if she did have a concussion, but even concussed she still seemed sharp. So far the trickiest part had been getting kidnapped by the same group. A wallet of pesos and a promise of full immunity had netted them an informant inside the ring, and Lee imagined it was probably him who suggested Lee as their next target. For his part, Lee had made a show of being a wealthy tourist. It was a lucky thing that another group of kidnappers hadn’t targeted him.
He couldn’t pinpoint their precise location on a map right now, but he bet he could get within twenty miles. The van they’d used to transport him was windowless, but he’d heard perfectly well. They were up in the mountains, but not so remote that a vehicle couldn’t get there. The road noise changed significantly once they’d left the city of Oaxaca proper, and even blindfolded, he knew the smell and feel of the jungle close around them when they brought him into the house.
If what Zoe said was accurate, there probably weren’t more than two or three guards in place at a time. They were accustomed to meek prisoners waiting for ransom. The biggest unknown was how heavily armed they were. Zoe had seen more of them than he had—and she was right, between the removal of her hood and the sudden mistreatment by the guards, they weren’t planning to keep her alive much longer. He’d have to trust that her sense of observation was keen.
He turned his plan over and over in his head, looking for cracks. It wasn’t perfect, but no plan ever was. All that was left was to wait a few more hours, give the guards plenty of time to get drowsy and disoriented. Lee closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall, and waited.
It was dark when Lee woke her with a gentle shake. “Zoe.” His voice was low against her ear. “It’s time.”
She struggled up toward consciousness, blinking and wishing she could rub her eyes. Her face ached. Her cheek was hot and swollen. A black eye wasn’t out of the question. As she opened her eyes, she realized she was leaning against Lee, and sat up. “What do I do?”
He flashed her a quick grin that made her feel sorry for anyone that got in his way. “Play dead.”
“Just that. Lie still, try to hold your breath. You shouldn’t have to for long.” He nudged her away from him and onto her side. His hands were untied, when had that happened? She let her mouth fall open and tried to make her muscles go slack. “Good,” Lee murmured, then she felt him loosening the ropes around her hands. “Stay down until I tell you it’s safe.”
“What are you—?”
“Shh. Dead.” No sooner had she settled than he raised his voice. “Oh god, oh my god. Guards! Hello? ¿Por favor? The girl, I think she died!”
“Quiet in there!” She recognized the guard’s voice, one of the slower, duller ones.
“¡Ella es muerto!” Lee’s accent was terrible—was it deliberately bad?
The doorknob rattled then the door swung open. Lee spoke in broken first-year-of-high-school Spanish. “He hit the girl hard. Too hard. The girl is dead.”
The guard grunted and his footsteps came closer. Zoe held her breath. She didn’t have to wait long. The guard touched her neck and there was the meaty sound of a punch, followed by a strangled yelp. The guard’s hand went away. The two men scuffled on the floor next to her and the urge to open her eyes was overwhelming. Lee was right though, as long as they thought she was already dead, they’d ignore her.
At the sound of a gun cocking, she gave in and cracked her eyes just enough to make sure it was Lee with the gun. He kept over the fallen guard, gun in hand. The other guard appeared in the doorway and Zoe snapped her eyes shut again.
There were two flat bangs, and the sound of a body hitting the floor. Who shot first? After the third shot, the urge to call out Lee’s name was almost a physical pain. She took the chance of opening her eyes again—neither of the two bodies on the floor were Lee’s, but he wasn’t in the room. Panic grabbed her fully by the throat. He’d left her. He wasn’t who he said he was, he saw his chance and ran, and now she was here in the room with two dead kidnappers. Her heart slammed against her ribcage like it, too, was trying to escape. The vision of him jumping into whatever vehicle was outside and driving away was so clear she thought she heard the ignition roar.
“Zoe! All clear!” She opened her eyes to see him in the doorway, gun still in hand. He tucked it into the back of his jeans and knelt by the first guard, feeling for a pulse. “Toss me your ropes,” he said. “He’s still alive.”
She bolted upright, breath coming in great, heaving gasps. She scrabbled at the ropes around her ankles, but it took her three tries to get them loose with her shaking hands. She tossed them to Lee and tried to stand under her own power for the first time in three days. Climbing to her feet with the help of the wall, her muscles were shaky and weak, and the pins and needles started in her feet immediately. Limping to the doorway, she gave the bodies on the floor a wide berth.
“What now?” she asked.
“Now we get out of here and find a clearing so we can catch our ride.” He pulled an ancient cell phone from his pocket. “Luckily, one of our boys charged his phone. There’s a car out front. Neither of them is carrying keys, but I’m not taking the time to search the house. Come on.” He took her by the hand and pulled her toward the door.
“So we walk out of here?” Zoe shook free, but followed him. Her head was throbbing worse than ever.
“Oh ye of little faith.” The car was a tiny Nissan that had seen better days. A long time ago. He pulled open the driver side door with a complaining screech of metal and folded himself into the bucket seat. She hadn’t realized before just how tall he was. Through the passenger side window she could see him busily stripping wires under the dashboard with his penknife. She was about to climb in when she heard the rumble of a vehicle. “Shit. Someone’s coming.”
His head popped up as he listened. “Get in.” With a spark of wires, the ignition caught and stuttered to life. “Hang on.” He threw it into reverse and spun the car around in the small space in front of the house—which now she could see was really not much more than a hut in the middle of the jungle. He didn’t turn on the headlights, and Zoe had a moment to hope like hell his night vision was better than hers. Headlights flickered through the trees ahead. The road was too narrow; there was no way they could pass whoever it was. She stole a glance at him and could just see the set of his jaw: determined. The seatbelt was as battered as the rest of the car, but she pulled it on and fastened it anyway, then held on to the door handle.
Lee gunned the sewing-machine engine, and they rounded a turn to see a pair of headlights coming right at them. “Lee.” Her pulse pounded heavy and thick in her skull.
“We’ll get past.” He flipped the headlights on and laid on the horn, a rusty screeching honk. The van swerved at the last second, honking its own horn. The tires of the small compact car spun and found purchase on the soft dirt of the road. Zoe could have reached through the window and slapped her palm on the van without stretching, but they got past, horn blaring.
Zoe said, “That was the van—”
“Yeah.” He looked in the rearview mirror. “Same one. They’ll come after us.” Keeping one hand on the wheel, he pulled out the cell phone and handed it to her. “Call this number,” and gave her a U.S. number.
“Hand it to me.”
She handed it over just as she heard a crisp female voice say, “Mazatlan Imports, how can I help you?”
“Good to hear your voice, Lieutenant. This is Prodigal Son, looking for a ride out of here for me and a friend.” She turned to look out their rear window while listening to his side of the conversation. “Yeah,” he said. “I think we’re about thirty miles southwest of Oaxaca… oh, you do. Good. Got a clearing for me?” He listened intently, and nodded, even though he was on the phone. “I can get there in about ten minutes. Listen, we’re going to have company here pretty quick, can we put a rush on this?” He grinned. “I’ll do what I can. Thanks.” He clicked the phone closed and handed it to her. “We’re on our way to meet our ride. There’s a clearing not far from here.”
“How far behind us do you think they are?”
“Depends how far they had to go before they could turn around. If we can get to a turn off before they get in sight of us, we’ll be home free. Should be—damn it.” He saw it the same time she did, then, a pair of headlights a little ways behind them.
His answer was to step on the gas, making the little car fishtail in the dirt. Zoe stared behind them, watching the headlights creep gradually closer. “They’re catching up.”
“Of course they’re catching up, they’ve got an eight-cylinder engine and I have a lawnmower. Shit.” He slapped his hand on the steering wheel. “Hang on.” He pushed the car harder, the engine starting to whine like a mosquito. “Come on come on come on,” he muttered. “I don’t suppose you know how to shoot.”
“A gun? No,” she said. Her fingers curled into ripped plastic upholstery of the seat back. They were going to catch up to them, and when they did, they were going to kill her. Probably Lee as well. Her breath came in shallow sips and she tried to force deeper breaths.
“We’re going to get through this.” He curled his fingers around her free hand. “Listen to me. You still trust me, right?” She met his eyes as he looked between her and the dark road in front of them.
“…I trust you.” Her chest loosened and she was finally able to take a deep breath.
“All right. I want you to get down onto the floorboard. You’ll have to take your seatbelt off.” He smiled and let go of her hand. “Just in case. They’re not close enough to get a shot at us yet, but better safe than sorry.” She slid out of her seat and crouched on the filthy floor of the car. “Good girl. The turn off for the main road is up ahead. We’ll beat them there, and once we’re on pavement we’ll be able to get farther ahead.”
Zoe rested her head on the car seat and closed her eyes. Her world narrowed to the buzz of the engine and the stink of fear and motor oil. All she could do was hang on and breathe. With a thump, the sounds changed, the wheels rolling on pavement instead of dirt.
“We should be there in five more minutes. We’re going to make it, Zoe, I promise.”
She wanted to believe him, but the tension in his voice was unmissable. She opened her eyes and looked up to see him watching the rearview mirror, face set in grim determination.
“How close are they?”
His shoulders slumped a little. “Close. We might have a fight on our hands when we get to the clearing.”
The first shot blew out the rear window with a crash and a shower of safety glass fragments. Zoe flinched and yelped, covering her head with her arms. “Hang on,” Lee said, and spun the steering wheel. The road changed to dirt again, and the jarring bumps rattled her teeth. “We’re almost there. When I say so, get out of the car and stay low behind one of the tires, okay?” She didn’t answer at first. “Zoe! Be ready to get out and crouch behind the car, are you with me?”
After a few twists and turns, Lee slammed on the brakes with a screech and the car spun to a stop. “Now! Behind the tire.”
Zoe scrambled for the door handle and crawled out of the car. She knelt behind the rear tire, fighting the urge to look and see what was happening. Lee followed her out of the passenger side and slammed the door shut. The gun was in his hand, and with a single quick motion, he popped the clip and checked the ammunition. “Our ride should be here any minute.” He squeezed her shoulder and moved to crouch at the front of the car, peering over the hood. She heard the van screech to a halt and a door open. Lee fired a shot then moved back behind cover. From the cursing, he must have hit someone.
“Shit, there’s more of them than I have bullets.” He growled in frustration. “What the hell, did they stop and get reinforcements in the middle of the night?”
Everything seemed very far away. She was dimly aware of Lee firing the gun, of shots hitting the car, bullets flying overhead. Men were shouting in Spanish and in English and there was a roaring noise overhead. It got bright as daylight and gusts of wind buffeted her body, nearly knocking her from her crouch. It took far too long to register the helicopter above her, then landing in the clearing. More gunfire, more screaming. Everything sounded far away, as if her head were underwater. Something so distant couldn’t possibly hurt her.
Then Lee was shouting her name, pulling her to her feet. When she couldn’t run, he picked her up.
It wasn’t until he’d buckled her into the helicopter seat and they’d taken off that she fully realized what was happening. For the second time since her kidnapping, Zoe started to cry, this time in great, racking sobs. She let Lee pull her out of her seat and cradle her like a child while he murmured to her. “You’re safe now. It’s over. We’re going home.”
It was over.