Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
Lane Sinclair made her way down a second floor corridor of the Casa Mariposa, heading towards Teresa Leóns office. Other hallways on this floor opened up onto lower levels of the home like the thrusting prow of a ship, or else ended at floor-to-ceiling Palladian windows with double-glass doors leading out onto flowered, secure terraces. But this particular corridor was on the more secluded, protected side of the building.
Her trained eye had been quick to spot all the guards and the closed-circuit cameras in the halls - keeping an eye on her, no doubt - and shed also noted that the medical suite, the gym where shed spent the last several weeks rehabbing, and the guest room shed been assigned, were all rather isolated from the rest of the house.
Isolated and protected.
Difficult for outsiders to approach, and nearly impossible for those inside to leave. Hed been dumb like a fox, that Enrico León, in terms of his design of the Casa. The place was built like a damn castle, and just as heavily fortified.
Since she and Teresa had reached their agreement, shed been given literally the run of the house, the pool, and the gardens. But she also recognized the relative freedom shed been allowed for the tacit test that it was. Sure, she could give it a shot and try to get away. But without the permission of the casas owner, shed never make past the front gates alive.
Not that shed felt that physically able to make a break for it anyway, at least not in that first week or two after shed been wounded. God, that old man, Doctor Ceniceros, hadnt been kidding when hed told her shed have a rough time of it. The soft fuzz of shaved hair on the side of her head, just now growing back from where the bullet had grazed her, was fortunately obscured by the rest of her long, thick hair. And after ten days or so, shed been finally able to bend over and touch her toes without the pain in her back and side threatening to send her spinning off into unconsciousness.
But her leg now that had been a bitch. The doctor had told her how the bullet had penetrated the muscle in her thigh, lodging precariously close to the bone. Ironically, an artery it had severed on its miserable journey was the injury that had been the most life threatening of all; in the end, shed nearly bled to death.
Even now, she walked with a limp that she did her best to hide, particularly when the guards or Teresa were around. But she was committed to getting the troublesome limb back to 100% function. The therapy in the gym helped; hell, the facility in the casa was better equipped than anything she was used to back home. Each morning, under the watchful eye of a guard from whom she would occasionally bum a cigarette or two, shed push herself through a brutal series of leg extensions, squats, and curls, praying she wouldnt pass out. It had been difficult, painful work, but shed done it religiously, and now she didnt even need a cane anymore.
"Hola." She nodded at the guard standing negligently by the doors to the office. If you made it this far to the inner sanctum of the casa, then clearly, you belonged.
The guard, a young man who was nearly half a foot shorter than her, didnt answer, but he stood a little taller, threw his shoulders back, and turned on her a venomous stare. His hand went to his hip and dangled close by the gun secured in his belt; a silent threat.
The guy was a cockroach, Lane could see that. God, how could Teresa put up with losers like this under her roof? Prowling the corridors during the day, and never far from her bed while she slept. Even now, Lane still hadnt been able to figure out Teresas purpose in all this. Why had someone like her; so soft, so delicate, remained in this place, putting up with all the risk and the danger? She hadnt a clue.
Lane was reminded of those damn cable nature programs she had liked to watch late at night back home; a lifetime ago, now, where they would gleefully show a tiny, unsuspecting bird, perched on the semi-submerged head of a river crocodile.
So close to its powerful jaws.
All it took was one moment, an instant, perhaps when the birds attention was distracted, and then it was all over.
Did Teresa León really fancy herself as the next Mexican drug kingpin? Lane had tried, but she simply couldnt see it. Or maybe she didnt want to.
Teresa had taken to inviting her to dine with her in the evenings, and during those meals, between the food that the blonde barely picked at and the wine that she seemed to enjoy a bit too much, shed begun to outline her plan to bring down Benitez.
Lane had been impressed.
Teresa understood the workings of her dead husbands business extensively, that was apparent. And she knew plenty about Benitezs too, more than Lane had ever expected she would. Teresa definitely had a business head on her shoulders, and gradually, Lane was beginning to understand that it had not been only Enrico León who was behind the power of the Mazatlán cartel.
Still, was that reason enough to remain here, with your husband dead and his business associates circling you in the water, snapping at you, flashing their teeth? Most women wouldve floored it out of here with as much cash as they could stuff into their Louis Vuitton luggage, and started a new life somewhere else. Or else limped back to their old one, wealthier and wiser.
But not Teresa León.
The young woman fascinated Lane; she was able to admit that to herself now. She saw what everyone else saw; the exacting businesswoman, the disinterested lady of the house, the withdrawn widow. But there was something else beneath the surface, something else going on she couldnt quite put her finger on. A sadness, perhaps, or maybe it was despair, of a sort. Shed seen only the barest flashes of it from time to time before Teresa had quickly tucked it away, out of sight, but she knew it was there. And she was beginning to think that Teresa knew shed detected it, too.
The guard had ducked his head inside the office door and announced her arrival.
"Come in, Miss Sinclair." A cool voice sounded from inside.
It took Lane several seconds and a dirty look from the guard before she found herself able to respond to Teresas formal address.
The guarura stepped aside, barely, and let her pass.
She entered the office; a large room of dark woods and thick carpet. The better to muffle sounds to any errant listening device, she knew. Teresa was seated; so calm, so collected, behind an absurdly large antique desk. Before the desk, sitting in a straight line, was what looked to be her firing squad.
Manuel Diaz, she recognized. But there were three other men besides, one of whom resembled an older, more dissolute version of Enrico. The brother, Lane guessed.
Teresa had told her nothing about the meeting, other than the fact that this was her chance to make her pitch to the key cartel members. To state her case to Carlos León, Lorenzo Avalos - the head of the cartel partners - and Ernesto García, the León family lawyer. Teresa was already behind her, trusted her, God knew why. But it would be nice to have the support of the others, too, however unlikely that prospect.
It was apparent from the air in the room that theyd been meeting for some time. As unruffled as Teresa appeared to be, the others were clearly agitated. Or, at least Manuel was, and the brother, Carlos, seemed to be bordering on the apoplectic. His eyes were bulging wide, his dark face was flushed, and judging by the look he was giving her, she guessed that hed already secured his place close behind Manuel in the line of those wishing to see her dead.
"Take a seat, please." Teresa gestured towards a large leather upholstered chair at the side of the desk, facing towards the seated men.
The witness chair, Lane thought, except Im the one on trial. Doing her best to hide her limp, to display no weakness, she strode purposefully to the chair and sat down, returning the hard stares of the men with one of her own.
Teresa cleared her throat, and Lane turned to her. The blonde clasped her hands and leaned forward, and the agent found herself gazing into a pair of gem-like green eyes, highlighted by the natural light streaming in the windows. "Ive been discussing with my advisors," she began, "my proposal relative to Señor Felix Javier Benitez, and the role you might play in that." Her eyes shifted from Lane towards the men in front of her, and it was then she saw the spark of anger in them. "As well as the ongoing assistance you can provide us as a security consultant."
"Needless to say," a tall, thin man said, the light reflecting off his wire-framed glasses, "the security of the business is paramount. Anything that jeopardizes that," he cast a quick glance towards Teresa, "we cannot tolerate."
"I understand that, Ernesto," Teresa said, pursing her lips. "Miss Sinclair does, too." She turned to Lane. "Correct?"
"Yes," she replied. Outwardly, her face remained impassive, but inwardly, her stomach churned. Over and over again during the past few weeks, shed told herself that this was the only way, that this was the only option available to her that made any sense. It was how she could survive, first and foremost, and then get to Benitez and take down that bastard David Starks.
It was that desire for revenge that had fueled her recovery and driven her to say and do things shed never asked of herself before. Her rage was real enough, and Teresa had unwittingly tapped into that with her business proposal. Lane had let her, for now, knowing that at the end of this tortuous, God-forsaken road, shed have a choice to make. Like the four legs of a table, she couldnt take down two of them and think that the table would remain standing.
When Benitez fell, with Starks by his side, Teresa León would go tumbling down along with them.
When the time came for that, could she do it? Could she turn her in, turning her back on the woman who had saved her? Hell, by the looks of the assholes sitting in front of her, she might never live long enough to even have to exercise that choice.
"There is the trust issue," a short, middle-aged man whined, smoothing his thinning hair. Lorenzo Avalos, spokesman for the cartels partners. "That is a problem."
"This is bullshit!" Carlos León finally exploded, his fiery gaze challenging Lane. "I cant believe were even considering this. Youre DEA!"
"Was," Lane corrected him, her voice low, controlled.
"Some of the best consultants are those who were closest to the process on the other side," Teresa pointed out. "Connected."
"Like that fool, Gaitán Romero?" Manuels face twisted in a sneer. "And we all know what happened to him."
"Gates was an idiot," Lane told him, bristling at the name of her former partner. "I, however, am not."
Teresa continued her proposal, studiously keeping her eyes off the agent. "Lane... Miss Sinclair has expert knowledge that can assist us in training our people," she said, "as well as in helping us with Benitez. We all want the same thing here, if you just look at the facts."
"No!" Carlos snapped. He pushed himself to his feet and pressed towards Teresa, like a bulldog straining at the leash. He pounded at his palm with a meaty fist. "I wont let you destroy what my brother built, you puta, you"
Lane had found herself unconsciously rising from her seat when Carlos had made his threatening move towards Teresa. But before she could even respond, the smaller woman was up in a flash, her hand streaking towards Carlos face.
A sharp crack! sounded through the room as her palm made contact.
Carlos was taken completely by surprise. He stared dumbly at her, and his hand slowly went to his cheek in shocked disbelief.
"If you cannot keep a civil tongue in your head, brother," Teresa said to him, her voice deathly cold, "then you will leave here until you are able." She paused. "However long that may take."
Slowly, Carlos lowered his considerable bulk down into his chair, and Lane felt her own body relax from the tense posture shed assumed.
"I am the authority here," Teresa said tersely. "This is my responsibility. My right." She sat down, glaring at the men all the while, but Lane noticed the whiteness of her hands as they gripped the sides of her chair. This woman was something in action, that was for sure.
Lane hadnt expected to waltz in here and find them all crawling on their hands and knees to her, kissing her ass and begging her for her yanqui help. But Teresa was fighting for her, and Lane knew that she, too, had to give them something positive to latch onto, their hunk of the pie, as it were.
"Listen," she said, realizing that they were all staring at her now as she remained standing. "You know youve got problems here. Hell, Im good, but the fact that I was able to get so close to Enrico, and so quickly, well, I aint that good. Your security should never have let that happen."
"That was Ricos choice!" Manuel protested, his dark eyes narrowing at the verbal attack on his men. "I told him a hundred times he shouldnt---"
"But you let him anyway, didnt you?" Lane cut him off, feeling her temper rise. The arrogant jerk.
She took a step forward, moving closer to her jury. Letting them feel her height, her power, her anger. And she let it go, unleashing it upon them, hoping to God shed be able to rein it in again. The line it was so damn thin, so close, and she felt herself stumbling forward even as she tried to keep from crossing it.
"So I was DEA, so what?" she snapped at them. "Who the fuck cares? Im the best you could ever hope to get. Im your wet dream come true," she said, her mouth curling up in a cold, seductive smile, "and you know it. You want Benitez out of the picture? Well, heres a newsflash: so do I. You were at risk then, and youre at an even greater risk now." She flashed a sidelong glance towards Teresa. "Now that Enrico is dead."
"But how do we know youre not working with him?" Ernesto García struggled to remain calm, but he spoke for all the men, that was apparent. "Or with the DEA?"
Lane folded her arms. "You dont."
"See! I told you!" Carlos crowed triumphantly, his face still bearing the red imprint of Teresas hand.
"But Ill tell you this." Lane moved closer to him, and he visibly flinched. "Ive got a few bullet holes in me that remind me every minute of every day of who did this to me. Benitez and the DEA wanted me dead. The only reason Im not," she stole a look at Teresa again, whose face remained a blank, "is because of Señora León." She hesitated, sweeping her blue dagger eyes over them, running them through. "Id say thats worth something."
She waited, daring them to challenge her, conscious of the faint squeak of the ceiling fan overhead; the distant sound of a hedge clipper.
The fucks. It figured that theyd want to go and look the gift horse in the mouth.
"Ah thank you, Miss Sinclair," Teresa said at last, gesturing for her to take a seat.
Lane did so, never taking her eyes off of Teresas advisors. They were a tough sell, she knew that, especially Manuel Diaz. Overall hed had relatively little to say, but his message was coming through loud and clear. The bastard would slit her throat, given half the chance. But more than that, she feared for Teresa, knowing this man day after day was so close to her.
"We approach Benitez," Teresa was saying. "We play his game. Hell be expecting me to come to him. He has something we want his fleet of modified 727s. Far superior to our prop planes. And we have something he wants."
"The air strips," Lane explained, forcibly calming her voice. "Theyre what started this feud in the first place and got Enrico killed. Well let him use them, so he can ship his product - and ours besides - across the border, following flight routes used by commercial aircraft. With their size and routing, blending in with all the other air traffic, theyll be hard to identify as anything other than what they appear to be: 727s full of passengers rather than contraband."
"And then theres the Canada operation," Teresa said, nodding at Lane approvingly. "Brand new territory for him, if we let him in on the deal. Itll be difficult for him to resist."
"Let me see if I understand this, Teresa," Ernesto said, his thin lips set in a tense line. "We go into virtual partnership with Benitez. Let him in on our operation."
"More importantly," Teresa countered, "he lets us in on his. Well know what he knows. We co-opt his hardware, his resources, all the while forcing him to tap into his secondary sources of supply because meanwhile well be squeezing his pipeline shut."
"And he wont even know its us," Manuel said quietly, his mustache twitching as he considered this. "People like Guillermo Ramos. We offer them better deals, we gain control over Bentiezs supply"
Teresa snapped her fingers. "And we cut him off. Hell be dead in the water without product, and well be sitting pretty with all his contacts, his routes, and his aircraft."
"And then we kill him," Manuel added, his voice oozing with the threat. "We avenge Enrico."
"Worse." Teresa eased back in her chair. "We take away what he loves his business. We destroy him."
"It will be risky, Señora," Lorenzo Avalos said, the worry plain on his features. "The partners"
"Are for you to deal with."
"And as for this grand operation?" Carlos León had recovered somewhat from his assault. "What of that?"
Before Teresa could answer, Lane cut her off. "Leave that to me."
Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.
Lane let her legs drop down, releasing the tension on the bar, and felt the weights from the leg lift station vibrating against the equipment as they came to rest. The sweat was pouring off her, and her thigh was killing her, but she preferred it this way, the sweat and the pain. It made her feel vital, alive.
It was late afternoon, much later than her normal workout time thanks to the meeting, and the casa had already roused from its siesta. Servants were about on the upper floors, changing bed linens, cleaning the halls. Below, preparations were underway for dinner. Not only for herself and Teresa, but for all the other guards and staff whose shifts took them through the dinner hour. Lane had noted that the staff mostly ate on-site; the fewer times the gates had to be opened during the day, the better.
She moved across the padded carpet to a rack and bench, and began to adjust the weights on a barbell. She was lifting nowhere near what she normally did, not with her back and side still on the mend, but each day she was improving, increasing her weight and the number of reps, until a painful tug in her back muscle or a burning sensation in her gut told her when it was time to ease up.
Sliding down on the bench, she leaned back, grabbed the barbell, and began to lift. Instantly, her mind turned to Clarence, as it always did at this moment. She was silly to be lifting without a spotter; she knew he would tell her that if he could. The guard usually hanging out near the doorway had wandered off somewhere, so he wasnt an option.
What the hell.
Two. Three. Four.
She blinked back the tears and closed her eyes as she imagined him standing there, wearing his brilliant white smile, along with a towel draped around his neck and the workout gear on his lean body that had never seen a drop of sweat.
It was like he was there, right there; God, she could almost smell the candy-sweet scent of his bubble-gum. Clarence, the one partner shed ever had who had taken the time to break down the walls shed so carefully cultivated around herself. He had seen the bits and glimpses of the real Lane Sinclair, in all her ignoble, pathetic glory, and had not turned away.
I miss you, Clarence. So much it hurts.
The figure of her partner in her minds eye drew closer, and its smile turned into a frown.
What you playin at girl, huh? Dont you get personally involved, Lane, you hear me? Aint like you to be making these damn-fool rookie mistakes!
But its for you, Clarence. Its all for you.
Dont be givin me that bullshit. You like a cat, Lane. And you aint lived this long by lettin emotions get in the way of the good sense you were born with.
I cant let them get away with what they did to you, Clarence. I cant, and I wont.
The figure shook its head. I aint talkin bout me, girl. Im talkin bout you.
What you been smokin, you asshole! Lane mentally told the figure, even as she felt a flush rise to her cheeks. She squeezed her eyes shut tighter, and the form of Clarence began to give way to the poignant image of a forlorn young blonde woman, standing on a high balcony, gazing off towards the sea.
Same thing as you, apparently. Clarence continued to fade away, even as the picture of Teresa became more defined in its warmth and intensity. Be careful, girl. You hear me? Be careful .
Christ, Sinclair! Snap out of it!
A fine time to begin to doubt herself! She had too much riding on the line now to let feelings get in the way. Clarence or rather that little voice inside herself, was wrong, dead wrong.
But its never been wrong before, she thought with some despair, as she forcibly turned her mind back towards the count. What the hell number was she on, anyway?
She felt a whisper of a draft on her body as she opened her eyes. Too late, she saw the flash of movement, and she cursed herself for the daydreaming that had caused her to drop her guard.
The barbell was wrenched from her arms and came down on her throat, hard, immediately cutting off her air. She began to choke, and then felt the sharp weight of the knee that ground into her chest, involuntarily forcing the breath from her lungs.
"Im watching you," a voice hissed, and through her clouded-red vision she saw him. It was that bastard, Manuel. He was smiling at her, a cruel, triumphant smile, and though her oxygen-starved brain screamed for her to struggle, she knew that given the slightest provocation, he would be only too happy to release the remaining weight of the barbell entirely onto her.
"Figures you gringas stick together," he told her, his breath hot, stinking of stale cigarettes and salsa. His face pressed closely into hers. "Well, Im watching you, do you hear me?"
Not really, you prick, Lane wanted to say as the roaring in her ears grew louder, but instead all she could manage was a wet gurgling sound. Her lungs were burning and she felt as though her throat were being crushed. Feebly, she tried slipping her hands under the sweaty bar, but it did no good. She was out of position, and Manuel had all the leverage.
"You take one false step " impossibly, the pressure on her neck increased. " and Ill be there ."
And then she couldnt hear him anymore, as her world started to spin, and then began to go dark. Just as her last, desperate awareness of consciousness was starting to slip away, she felt the pressure lift.
Oh God . Frantically, she tried pulling air in through her damaged throat, but at first it would not come. She ended up coughing, sputtering. Christ, for a moment there, she thought she might puke, until finally she felt the air start to wheeze into her aching chest.
Breathe just breathe . Weakly, she rolled over onto her side, throwing both feet onto the floor. Breathe . And with that air, her vision began to clear, and the freight train in her ears started to fade away.
" what the hell were you trying to do, Manuel?"
"Dont bother," a womans voice shouted. "Its very apparent to me whats going on here."
Lane had lowered her dark head between her knees, gasping, and once she was able to assure herself that she would not, in fact, throw up on her sneakers, she tentatively edged herself up to take in the form of Teresa León.
One very pissed off Teresa León, in fact.
Manuel was simply standing there, his arms hanging loosely by his sides, his jaw working, his hands shaped into fists. The barbell was where it should be, at rest in its rack.
"Lane!" Teresa closed the space between them, her eyes flashing with a rather attractive combination, Lane thought, of anger and concern. "Are you all right? Shall I get Doctor Ceniceros?" She knelt down next to the bench and rested a hand on Lanes thigh, and moved the other one gingerly towards her throat. "Its starting to bruise"
"Im fine," Lane croaked, gently pushing the hand away. "Really." She shot Manuel a withering stare. "No doctor, please."
"What happened, Lane?" Teresas mouth was set in a tense line. She angrily swept her gaze towards Manuel, and stood. "Youve gone too far this time, amigo. Ever since we brought her here, half-dead, youve been trying to finish the job."
"No!" Fighting the dizziness as the blood rushed from her head, Lane pushed herself to her feet. "Youve got it all wrong, Teresa," she said hoarsely, her voice cracking with the strain. "He was only trying to help."
"Help." Teresa stared up at her with her hands on her hips, the disbelief plain on her face.
"Yeah," Lane replied, thinking fast. She didnt want to make any more of an enemy in Manuel Diaz than she already had. Hell, maybe this was an opportunity to score a few machismo points with him. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. "I shouldnt have been lifting without a spotter. I must still be a little weak, or maybe I blacked out or something"
"Really?" A blonde head cocked.
"I mustve dropped the bar and Manuel happened to be passing by or something, and," she turned a cool blue gaze on him, "came in and, ah, saved me." She rubbed at her neck painfully. God, it was sore!
Manuels eyes glinted at her in understanding. Now, if only Teresa would buy her little fairy tale.
"You expect me to believe thats what I saw when I walked in here?" Her voice was incredulous.
"I dont expect anything from you," Lane retorted, annoyed. "Thats the truth, whether you choose to believe it or not." She turned her back on Teresa and grabbed for a towel. Shed had enough of this damn exercise for one day, and enough of Manuel Diaz to last her a lifetime.
"Is is that what happened, Manuel?"
Teresa was wavering, she could hear it in her voice.
"It is, Señora."
"And you have nothing more to say on the matter, Lane?"
Draping the towel around her neck, Lane turned to Manuel and cast a sidelong glance at Teresa. "Nope." She faced her attacker and gave him a cold, cheery smile. "Other than to say, I owe him one."
Teresa was frustrated, but she had no choice other than to accept both of them at their word. After a long, silent moment, she ordered Manuel from the gym and, when a final appeal to Lane to see the doctor went unheeded, she left, too. But not before extending to the agent the usual invitation to join her for dinner.
When Lane had the room to herself once again, she sat down heavily on a bench, panting. She put the towel over her head and lowered her elbows onto her knees. Damn, that had been close. If Teresa hadnt walked in, would Manuel have let her live?
And maybe not.
Gritting her teeth, she resolved never to let the bastard get the drop on her again. Shed been sloppy, and it had nearly cost her dearly. And if she werent around, what would happen to Teresa León? God, maybe it was because the gym was so warm, but she swore she could still faintly smell her, that not-quite perfume essence of of what? Vanilla, maybe, or flowers she didnt know what damn kind. But she detected the light, natural scent whenever the younger woman was around.
Get a grip, Lane! She shook her head to clear it, feeling the beginnings of a throbbing headache coming on. She was on a mission, now. She had a plan. This was about avenging Clarence, and nailing Starks and Benitez nothing more. That was the choice shed made, and she would see it through to the end.
Teresa León was a big girl. Shed made her own choices, too, Lane told herself. She hadnt turned back when shed had a thousand opportunities over the years to do so. Now, shed simply have to live with consequence of those choices, just like everybody else did.
Life, indeed, could be a bitch.
San Raphael at night was dead.
All the action in the evenings took place to the west, in downtown Mazatlán, whether in the Spanish colonial old city or in the neon-lit tourista strips along the beach. The residents of the affluent suburb were willing to pay extra for the seclusion, for the quiet that came with the lack of nightlife. As a result, each oversized villa in the community sat on several acres of finely landscaped grounds, most featuring the requisite guesthouse and pool sheltered behind high adobe walls designed for privacy.
The Casa Mariposa took that philosophy several steps further. Walls marking the propertys boundaries were ten feet high, with a gatekeepers hut just inside the main entrance. The front and rear courtyards were reminiscent of the mission-style designs of days gone by; in this case a mission that was heavily fortified with thick inner walls opening up onto deceptively simple lines and patterns, surfaces full of colored tiles and red clay.
The dependent buildings: garages, staff accommodations, security, a small laundry, and structures housing equipment for the gardeners and guaruras alike, were discretely hidden by strategic landscaping. Rotary tillers and AK-47s stored side-by-side, both tools of the trade for the occupants of the casa.
In the rear of the house, an expansive tiled patio stepped down into the gardens, the fountains and the pool, and eventually, somewhere past a thick curtain of flame vines and mimosa, was the imposing wall marking the rear of the property. Beyond the wall were additional acres of ground belonging to the León family; open space reserved from future development. Neighbors were one thing that Enrico León had not particularly relished.
Teresa León stood at the edge of the patio overlooking the gardens, leaning on a white stone railing. Her eyes tracked past the bougainvilleas and palms, past the trickling fountains and the high wall that defined her prison, to the western sky.
The sun had already set, painting the horizon in stripes of pale blue, amber, and rose. She imagined the lights beginning to wink on in Mazatlán, just as the small, hooded footlights did which framed the paths winding through her gardens. She couldnt see the ocean, but she fancied she could smell it, and in her minds eye she pictured the shrimp boats leaving the harbor for a round of night fishing, their distinctive booms and skimmers standing at the ready with flocks of hawking seabirds already trailing behind.
Another day drawing to a close. A day the same as yesterday was; a day guaranteed to be no different than tomorrow would be.
The business was running normally, despite the fact that Rico was no longer around. That fact seemed to surprise everyone but her. And, after their initial objections, the partners had given their tentative approval to her plan to dethrone Felix Javier Benitez. Not that she needed their imprimatur to proceed she wouldve done so anyway. But having them behind her helped.
The question of Lane Sinclair was another matter. That had been a tough one for her advisors to swallow, particularly Carlos and Manuel. She leaned forward on the railing, draining the last of the sangria from her glass, remembering. She didnt think for one minute that Manuel Diaz had been helping the agent this afternoon with the barbell. But in light of the denials from the both of them, shed had no choice but to go along with their explanation.
She was still trying to figure Lane out, still trying to comprehend what sort of a woman could carry within her such anger, such resentment; understanding herself that when you did that, it took its toll. With each passing day you died a little inside, bit by bit, until there was nothing left but the bitter husk of the person you once were. Because youd burned it all up, all the goodness and heart you had inside, focusing on the object of your rage.
And then the numbness set in.
Something she was quite familiar with.
So Lane would help her with Benitez that was well and good. And shed help hone the skills of their protection staff that was fine. The former DEA agent had an agenda of her own, she was sure of that, but frankly she didnt much care what it was, as long as her own primary objective was accomplished.
She sighed, a deep, heavy sigh, and felt the telltale goose bumps begin to sprout on her arms. A breeze had kicked up, blowing in from the ocean; a layer of coolness overspreading the warmth rising from the heat the patio had absorbed during the day.
Why in Gods name did she trust Lane Sinclair? Maybe because she needed to, wanted to. Even with Lane half unconscious, shed been able to talk to her as she had to no other. Confide in her, against all logical rationale and good sense. The tall, dark haired woman was dangerous, and strong, too; shed demonstrated that well enough several weeks ago when shed taken out three guards on only one leg and at half strength. Not to mention the fact that shed even been able to survive her wounds in the first place.
And then there was today.
Teresa had to admit shed felt a warm flare of something, at the moment Lane had literally leapt to her defense when Carlos had confronted her. She knew if she hadnt struck her brother-in-law first, the agent very well might have.
Someone looking out for her, supporting her; it had been so long since shed had that, if she ever did. She hadnt gotten that from Enrico never from him. Not from the spoiled sycophants shed called her friends, and not from the strangers that blood and societal convention recognized as her parents.
Something inexplicable had drawn her to this woman from the very first night shed found her near-lifeless body in the dusty hills, and a part of her, the larger part, feared to examine just why that was so. She was stretched too thin, her emotional reserves were completely tapped, and in the end, she supposed she just didnt want to open herself up to the pain, the uncertainty of it all. Let Lane Sinclair help her to do what she needed to do, and that would be it. It would be finished.
She would be finished.
And that was how shed always known it would be in the end, right? The path she had long ago chosen was so narrow, so wind-swept and stormy; there was no turning back, no standing still. Only the moving forward, ever forward, sleepwalking through a minefield on her way towards oblivion.
"Need a refill?"
Lane appeared by her side, bearing a fresh pitcher of sangria.
Teresa held out her empty glass. "Sure."
She watched the bits of fruit bobbing on the surface of the burgundy liquid as Lane poured. The sangria was made fresh daily, whether she ended up drinking any or not.
"Youre not going to let me drink alone, are you?"
"Too late for that now," Lane archly noted. But the agent returned to the dining table just inside the patio doors, and grabbed herself a clean glass. "This cant be good for me," she said, slowly pouring as she made her way back. "God knows what sort of drugs Doctor Ceniceros is still pumping me with. But what the hell."
"Then maybe you shouldnt" Teresa said, suddenly concerned.
"Nah." Lane drew up beside her, taking care to hide her limp, and leaned her elbows on the stone railing. "Whats it gonna do kill me?" She offered her a lopsided grin and lifted her glass. "Salud!"
Teresa found herself returning the smile, and clinked glasses with her new security consultant. Feeling suddenly self-conscious under the taller womans penetrating stare, she turned back towards the garden. Stars were beginning to twinkle overhead, and the chorus of the night was rising around them; the hum of nature, living, breathing, enveloping.
She felt edgy, restless, but there was nothing new in that. Shed enjoyed Lanes irreverent company over dinner tonight. Shed come to look forward to these meals more than she had a right to, thanks to Lane, but once more shed picked over her food, barely tasting the fish in a mild cream sauce with poblano chiles that her cook, Daniella, had expertly prepared. Eating held no pleasure for her, nothing did these days, really. She simply marched on, a slave to her destiny, unwilling to feel, to live.
"Your lawyer, Ernesto García. He seems like a reasonable man."
Teresa laughed quietly. "He knows who signs his paychecks."
Lane had somehow moved closer to her, and their forearms were lightly touching as they both stared out into the fading twilight. It was amazing, Teresa thought, how warm the woman always was, as though she held an inner fire. It suited her, in a way. The heat, the power she exuded. Even when she was doing nothing at all, it was impressive. There was a dynamic lethargy about her, like a lioness at rest, all subdued, thinly veiled energy. Ready to strike in a quicksilver flash.
"The others " Lane shook her head. "I dont know why Enrico put up with them. Or why you do."
The smile ran away from her face, and she took a swallow of her sangria. "Theres a lot you dont know," she said, fighting to keep the irritation from coloring her words.
Who was Lane Sinclair to give voice to what shed already privately questioned of herself at length? Those men were despicable, every last one of them. Dealing with them was like dealing with the devil. A necessary evil, a means to an end. Only now they would answer to her, and she would use them, as Enrico had. Their greed would be their downfall.
"Sorry." Lane lowered her head and grinned wryly. "Looks like Im starting my job with a personnel assessment. Just my nature, I guess."
"Really." Teresa looked up at her, at this stranger whom shed taken into her home and given her trust. "And what else is in your nature, Miss Sinclair?"
"Given the choice," she gazed at her evenly, "I know if circumstances had worked out differently, you wouldnt be here right now. Admit it. You never could have predicted this for yourself. Despite how conveniently its all worked out."
"I dont waste my time trying to tell the future." Lanes face tightened, closed off. "Life deals you a hand of cards, and I play the cards Im given. Sometimes youve got a royal flush and sometimes youve got shit, but it doesnt matter." She hesitated, choosing her words deliberately. "Its what you do with them that counts."
"What kind of a hand are you holding now?" Teresa took another sip of her drink, steeling herself for the answer.
"I dont know yet."
From inside the casa came the faint clatter of the maids clearing the table; a bit of laughter as they chatted amongst themselves.
"Whos missing you back home, Lane?" Teresa softly asked. She turned her back to the railing and leaned against it, gazing sidelong at the taller woman
"Starks, for sure," Lane grunted, trying to make light of the question.
Teresa did not laugh. She continued to regard Lane silently, probing her with her eyes. The agent had nimbly dodged so many of her questions over the past few weeks as theyd sparred between themselves. But something was different tonight. Maybe it was the sea air or the wine, or maybe it was because today something had subtlety changed between them in a way she couldnt quite put her finger on.
Lane shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. She started to answer once, stopped, then began again. "II dont have any family, if thats what you mean," she said at last, blowing out a tense breath. "Well, unless you count a jerk-off brother I havent spoken to in my adult life."
"Your parents are dead?"
"Yeah." Lane squinted off towards the darkening horizon; a light breeze began to kick up. "My father was in the Marine Corps. Killed in Vietnam before I was born."
"IIm sorry," Teresa found herself saying, and she meant it.
"Dont be," Lane quickly countered. "I mean, I never knew him, so how could I miss him, right? Hes always been just a guy in a uniform to me, smiling out of a picture frame. Thats all." She paused, and pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "And my mom she died a few years back. Cancer."
Teresa reached out and gently squeezed her forearm.
"I wish I could have been with her, ya know, but I was in the middle of a big operation and," Lane swallowed, "well, anyway, that was that." She turned a pair of piercing blue eyes on Teresa. "So, to answer your question of whos missing me? Probably the clerk at the Stop n Shop when I dont show up on Friday nights for my Frosted Flakes, cigarettes, and whiskey. Or maybe the kids at the Y where I used to shoot hoops." Her eyes began to moisten. "Maybe."
"I think you underestimate the impact you have on people," Teresa said carefully. She could feel the emotion rolling off of the taller woman in waves, emotion she was doing her very best to keep hidden.
"You think so, huh?" Lane took a gulp of her drink and turned back towards the garden.
"I know so." Teresa kept her gaze on Lane, watching as the breeze lifted her hair. She wondered what it would be like to have someone need you, care for you; to have someone you could feel that way about, in return. Obviously, despite her protestations to the contrary, Lane had at least had that experience in her life. Her reaction to her partners death had demonstrated that, plus there were others too, Teresa suspected, who were missing the tall agents presence right now.
To need, to care, to love.
Things Teresa had never dared to let herself feel, knowing the exquisite hurt it brought you in the end.
"Theres a lot you dont know," Lane said tightly, echoing Teresas own words. She shook her dark head. "I mean, I know why Im here, I do. But why are you?" She turned to her, and her voice dropped a pitch. "And dont tell me its about the money. We both know thats not true."
"No." Lane drew closer to her, intruding in her space, and it was all she could do to hold her ground. "Why didnt you walk away? You couldve done that anytime you wanted to. If you wanted to. Whats your payoff in all of this?"
Teresa couldnt help herself, she felt the frustration, the anger begin to bubble up in her chest. Why did this woman persist in taking her places where she didnt want to go? Where she couldnt afford to go, really, in terms of her sanity, and hope to survive it all?
"What do you think?" She bit out. "Im a party girl thats all. Enrico showed me a good time, so I stayed. And this?" She waved her arm out towards the property. "And the business? It was all just something to keep me from getting bored in-between fiestas. Isnt that what you expected to hear?" Teresa felt her control starting to slip, and she knew it was too late. Lane had pushed her too far, and shed let her, knowing shed find herself standing once more at the edge of that black pit she tried so hard to pretend didnt exist.
"I told you," Lanes voice was low in the encroaching darkness, "I dont make predictions. I look at what I see in front of me, and draw my own conclusions."
"Is that so." Teresa thrust out her chin and tried to keep herself from trembling. "And just what do you see?"
Lane regarded her for a moment and then dropped her eyes.
"I see," she lifted her head again, a pained expression on her face, "a woman whos hurting. Who wont allow herself to heal."
At the sound of Lanes words, Teresa felt her world start to spin. She had to get out of here, right away. This was all too much, she couldnt take it anymore. Time to retreat, to escape back to her refuge.
"How dare you," she spat, uncaring as her half-filled wine glass slipped from her nerveless fingers and shattered against the patio. She spun on her heel towards the casa, feeling as though she might implode.
"Fuck you, Lane Sinclair."
Well, that could have gone better, Lane thought, as she bent down and began to pick up the pieces of glass. Before she was halfway finished, a tag-team of two servants were on her, sweeping and mopping the tiles, dabbing at the red splotches the spilled sangria had left on her white slacks.
"Leave it," she said at last, tired of their fawning.
Sighing, she reached into her pocket and fished out the last of the cigarettes shed been able to coerce from Pedro, the little man bent over with age who shed found yesterday afternoon. Hed been keeping the water lilies at bay in the pond, armed only with his pruning shears. Shed smiled as shed watched him do battle, cursing the prolific plants, while taking care to point out to her the various colorful koi swimming amongst them; calling out to each one by name.
A match flamed to life in the darkness. She cupped it against the breeze and lit her cigarette. God, this tastes so good! She drew the bitter tobacco taste deep into her lungs and then exhaled, savoring every bit of the now-rare treat. Working closely with Teresa León might be the one thing that could get her to quit after all. The woman had made it plain that she didnt appreciate cigarette smoke around her.
Frowning, Lane tried to figure out just where shed gone wrong tonight. Theyd been talking as they usually did, and shed been startled to find herself opening up to the smaller woman more than shed intended to. Old memories, old choices that didnt matter any more worth a damn.
But when shed turned the tables on Teresa, it had backfired. Shed hit a sore spot, that was for certain, and a raw one at that. Shed seen the hurt she had caused with her comments, the sadness; had noticed the way Teresa had paled and her face had gone still.
And all shed wanted to do then was to make the hurt go away. To take her in her arms and
Youre falling for her Sinclair, you idiot.
Lane took another drag from her cigarette and held it, considering that disquieting bit of news.
She blew out a cloud of smoke and shook her head. This was wrong. All wrong. She hadnt wanted this to happen but No! This shit was way over the line, dammit.
She ground the cigarette out beneath her foot and let her eyes travel up the side of the casa, to where a dim light winked on inside a terraced room.
She didnt like leaving things this way with Teresa. They had a business relationship, that was all. And, business-wise, she owed her an apology, right? Best to get that out of the way, so they could both get some sleep this night.
Teresa sat on the side of her bed, head bowed, wishing she could just sink into the soft white comforter and melt away, disappearing out of sight, forever.
Lane had touched a nerve, one of the few she had left and functioning. It was her own fault, in a way. She had started it all, asking questions shed never really expected the dark agent to answer. And when she had, shed realized for the first time that she wasnt the only one who felt alone; wasnt the only one who was hurting.
Why hadnt she left this place? The question was fair enough.
Oh, shed tried once. To do what had to be done. But shed returned, as shed always known she would, taking a sadistic satisfaction in the punishment shed inflicted upon herself. Enrico had welcomed her back, anxious to preserve appearances, and after a few months hed eventually stopped demanding to know the name of the lover who he was certain had spirited her away; had stopped chasing after his pound of flesh.
The fool. It had always come down to power with him. And ego. She was glad he was dead. Glad.
She lit her candle. Her hands were shaking now, and her stomach hurt. Her muscles ached, crying out with need.
Stick to the plan.
Benitez would go down. Not out of any sense of justice or revenge, but because she needed to do it, now. It all had to stop, somewhere. And she was so tired. Benitez would fall, with the Mazatlán cartel not far behind Lane would see to that. That was what she trusted her for, more than anything else. In the end, Lane would do what was right. It was in her nature. She couldnt stop herself from doing anything but what was honorable, just as Teresa was powerless to keep from reaching for the leather case in her bed stand.
She unzipped the case and popped the cap off the syringe, preparing that first. Next, the packet. Her tremors caused her to spill the precious powder on her tabletop, but there was more where that came from, and so she added an extra tap or two into the spoon. More than she usually pushed, but hell, she needed it. A couple of drops later from the eyedropper and then she was cooking, her eyes glazing over in anticipation.
She was a ghost, she mustnt forget that. Shed died long ago. The actual physical event itself, when it came, would be a mere formality. The realness of it wouldnt change things. No one would miss her, anyway. Her stomach fluttered at the perverse thrill of it. Down here, south of the border, she was invisible.
She drew the bubbling liquid into the syringe. She was still shaking, shaking so hard she thought she might disintegrate into a thousand pieces. She had to leave this place; to forget - for just a while - everything. She stared at the numbers of the clock on her bed stand, and thought of her life, and how shed destroyed it. She thought of God, and wondered if he or she really existed. And she thought of Lane Sinclair, the woman who had dared to make her feel.
To be continued.
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