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.
The casa was settling in for the night as Lane made her way up the rear stairs to the second level. She could feel the quiet, as though the house were releasing a weary sigh and drawing its shutters closed. All buttoned down, tucked in, and dimly lit, with the glow from the hanging light fixtures casting giant shadows upon the walls; silent figures, moving.
To be sure, the Casa Mariposa was never entirely at rest. There were always guards prowling the grounds and manning the gates, and during the nights in the more secure wing of the house where her bedroom was, shed heard the heavy footsteps of guaruras passing outside her door more than once.
She reached the top of the sweeping stairs, and started slowly down the corridor of the west wing. She hadnt had the opportunity to venture to this area of the house often; there was no reason for her to do so, really, other than the time or two when shed gotten lost, and on another occasion when shed simply wanted to explore. But she knew this was where Teresas bedroom suite was; shed assumed as much one morning when shed peeked inside an open door as the maids were cleaning. Shed seen then the rosette tiled floor, the white canopied bed, the teakwood doors leading out onto a flowered terrace, the one shed spied tonight from the patio.
Lane scowled as she made her way along the hallway. Her head was pounding full force now, no doubt thanks to that asshole Manuel and her accidental encounter with that barbell this afternoon. And her leg was sore; shed spent entirely too much time on it today, and it was clearly throbbing its disapproval.
But those pains were minor annoyances compared to the ache she felt in her gut, the one that told her that shed screwed things up with Teresa León, and had to put things right. They had a business arrangement, that was all, and they were both treading on dangerous ground if they allowed themselves to drift over the line.
To make it personal.
To get to know one another in a way that would make it so hard to do what had to be done when the time came.
Teresa León had her own reasons for why shed chosen this sort of a life for herself, and those reasons were her own damn business. Lane recognized that in many aspects Teresa was strong; she wouldve had to have been, to have survived this long in Enricos world. But she was fragile, too, in ways that took her by surprise sometimes, like tonight. Shed pushed the younger woman too far, and had unintentionally broken something in her.
Now, she had to fix it.
She drew up to a carved oaken door, Teresas door. She lifted her hand to knock, hesitating only a fraction of a second before rapping lightly on the wood.
She knocked again. "Teresa? Its me, Lane."
Still no response.
Frowning, she let her eyes track down to the floor, where she could see a sliver of light glowing at the base of the door. Someone was inside, or had been. But she hadnt passed Teresa in the hall, and her better senses told her that the woman was still inside.
A final knock. "Teresa!"
She spun her head around, checking out the corridor. No one was about, there were no cameras pointing her way, and so she took a liberty she knew shed never be able to explain as an action driven merely from a need to reconcile a business misunderstanding.
But she did it anyway. She pushed the door open, mildly surprised to find it unlocked.
It took only a moment for her vision to adjust to the low light of a bedside lamp and a guttering candle. And then her eyes tracked to the canopied bed; its white gauze drapes wafting in a light breeze from the terrace.
Oh God, no! She had to force her mind to process what she saw, to absorb the garish tableau displayed before her.
Teresa had changed into a pale blue nightgown. She was sprawled haphazardly on the bed, her head flung back against the pillows, but not at rest. Her lips were parted, voiceless; her eyes were half-lidded, glazed and unseeing.
A black leather bag, her works, lay open on the nightstand by her side. Rubber tubing was tied off around her lower leg, and a thin line of blood on her foot trickled onto a white comforter; a splash of vibrant red. A syringe was still stuck in her skin just below her ankle, the final, ghastly exhibit entered into evidence.
"Teresa ." she breathed, closing the distance between the doorway and the bed in a panicked sprint.
Damn, it all made sense now! What the fuck kind of DEA agent was she anyway, that she hadnt picked up on the signs before? Spotting the spilled white powder on the bed stand, she swiped her finger through it and touched it to her tongue.
She grimaced, spitting at the telltale bitter tang of nearly pure heroin.
Swallowing down her revulsion, she withdrew the needle from Teresas foot and cast it aside, pulling away the tubing with her other hand. "Cmon cmon," she muttered, falling onto the bed and lifting the blondes limp body upright against the pillows. She thumbed open an eyelid, revealing an unresponsive green orb containing a pupil the size of a pinpoint.
Her skin was cold, clammy to the touch, like marble in a church, and Lanes heart started pounding double-time as her hand moved down to Teresas neck, frantically searching for a pulse.
It took a long, agonizing moment but she finally found it, the slow, barely discernable thump of a junkies heartbeat, made even more indistinct when they were under the influence of a heroin nod.
Okay. Now what?
Feeling torn, she turned back to the door. Should she go get help? See if she could find Doctor Ciniceros? Or should she wait it out, and hope that Teresa would be fine? One thing was for certain, Lane thought, taking in the purplish marks that were now visible on the younger womans feet; this was not the first time shed used.
"Teresa!" She slapped lightly at her face, but the girl remained completely unresponsive. God, was Teresa audacious enough to die on her right here and now if she didnt do something? She looked so pale, and her respiration was so slow it seemed virtually nonexistent. Still, somehow Lane guessed that the likes of Manuel Diaz and Carlos León knew nothing about the señoras nasty little habit, or they would have surely used it against her in the past. Revealing it now was a weakness Teresa simply couldnt afford.
"Dammit!" Lane growled, feeling a flare of anger towards the unconscious woman for putting her in this position. Placing an arm under her knees and around her back, she lifted Teresa up, choosing discretion over sounding the alarm, hoping like hell that she didnt live to regret it.
Lane was taken aback as the thin body in her arms groaned. Well, that was something, anyway, despite the fact that Teresas eyes remained closed.
There were several doors to choose from, and she ended up selecting the one closest to the bed, figuring that theyd either end up in a closet or the bathroom. She pushed open the door with her shoulder and then swung her precious burden inside.
"Okay just a minute here." She eased Teresas feet down and held her up with one arm; she was like putty in her hands, offering no resistance. Twisting, she groped for the light switch and found it, flicking it on.
Shed found the bathroom, all right.
A bathroom larger than most of the apartments shed had in her lifetime. The tile was everywhere; underfoot in intricate patterns, and on the walls in colors of virgin white and sky blue. With a large window on one side and plants everywhere, it gave you the illusion that you were outside, lounging under a cloudless summer sky.
Lane wasted no time in sliding open the doors to the oversized shower, carefully maneuvering Teresa inside. She offered her no opposition; she was so light, so vulnerable in her arms.
And so very stoned.
She turned the water on full force and it came pounding down, cold, cascading from the fixtures by design as though they were in the midst of a waterfall. Squinting against the spray, she held Teresa under the deluge, but still there was no reaction.
"Cmon, Teresa, cmon now!" She slapped her face again, hard, and she cringed against the force she had to use, but the blondes head merely lolled to one side, her face slack.
God, this wasnt working! Maybe she should go and scream bloody hell for the doctor. Teresa would be screwed then, but at least not as screwed as shed be if she ended up dead.
"Cmon, Teresa," Lane begged, shaking her. "Please."
A faint cry, so feeble and weak that she could barely hear it over the crashing water, but it was there, and she suddenly felt some resistance, some tension in the body she held against her.
"Thats it," she urged her on, "time to wake up!" She gritted her teeth against the coldness of the water as Teresa slowly came to life, the pain in her head and leg forgotten. It was as though the shower was stabbing at her with thousands of icy, numbing blades, and she wondered instead if it were possible to die of hypothermia here in the tropics.
Teresa mustve been considering the same thought, because she suddenly decided she didnt very much like the frigid spray dousing her head. She began to struggle, twisting, turning, trying to escape the freezing water. But Lane kept her arms wrapped securely around her middle, easily holding her in place, and it was then she realized they both were still fully clothed, and thoroughly soaked.
"Ungh," Teresa moaned. She leaned her hand against the shower wall, pitched her head forward, and began to vomit.
"Ssh ssh its okay youre gonna be okay." Lane held her as spasms wracked the small body. She continued a constant, comforting patter, holding her fast, until the shudders stopped and Teresas breathing took on a stronger, steadier rhythm.
Trying to keep her teeth from chattering, she twisted off the water and helped Teresa from the shower. She half walked, half carried her to the commode and sat her down on it. The water poured off the both of them, pooling around their feet. Ice water. Teresas eyes were closed and her head still hung low, but to Lanes eye her color was better, and at least she was conscious now. A soft, whimpering sound came from her, and she gripped her arms about her waist against the chill.
Hesitating only for an instant, Lane grabbed several thirsty white towels from a stack sitting atop a nearby marble vanity.
"Arms up," she said, as if talking to a child.
And like a child, Teresa willingly, if weakly, obliged. Lane had to press her own body against hers to hold her upright as she peeled the wet, clinging nightgown off her. "There." She tossed the drenched garment aside and began to towel her dry, swallowing hard as she tried to ignore the soft, appealing flesh warming beneath her fingers.
Teresa looked up and smiled vacantly at her, a flash of green behind slitted eyes. She was coming around now. Lane knew that with heroin, once the nauseous stage had passed, the drug showed its true colors and began its seditious, seductive assault upon the body. Shed heard the sensation compared to many things: better than an orgasm, a tidal wave of euphoria, an intense rush of pleasure that kept going and going all in a numbing haze of not-quite sleep, not-quite awake.
"Laaane." A slurred, singsong voice. "What are you doing here?"
"I just dropped by." She smiled tightly, and finished toweling off the short blonde hair. "Okay you think you can stand?"
"Sure." But Teresa didnt move a muscle. Frozen; the disconnect between mind and body eminently apparent.
"Okay, then." Lane squatted down, then reached out and picked up Teresas arms one at a time, placing them on her shoulders. "Lets go." Gripping her waist tightly, she guided her to her feet, and as the smaller woman held on, barely, she wrapped a fresh towel around her.
"Youre sooo warm," Teresa sighed, snuggling into her.
"I cant imagine why," Lane muttered, "especially after that shower." She grabbed a towel for herself and draped it around her neck. The truth of the matter was that every one of Teresas unwitting touches to her body was igniting her senses in ways she never could have predicted.
You are one sick fuck, Sinclair, she chastised herself. This woman is in no condition!
"Im cold," Teresa said wistfully, leaning into her. "Im always cold."
"Lets get you to bed, then."
Bearing almost all her weight, she slowly guided a wobbly Teresa from the bathroom; bare feet slapping on the tile, trailing tiny droplets like rain.
Back in the bedroom, moonlight poured through the windows and terrace doors, bathing the room in a soft, diffused glow.
"Wait for me here, will ya?" She eased her down into an overstuffed chair, propping her up like a tired puppet.
"Whats going on?" Teresa mumbled, her slurred voice sounding slightly petulant.
"Somebody did too much smack," Lane couldnt help but shoot back, as she made her way to the bed and began to clean up the mess there as best she could. How could Teresa do this to herself? Didnt she know what this crap would do to her?
She pinched out the candle, pulled the bloody comforter off the bed, turned down a coverlet, and tossed the needle and empty drug packet into the trash.
Then her eyes fell upon the leather kit.
Sighing, she picked it up and examined it.
It was well stocked with syringes and packets and cottons; enough shit to keep Teresa flying for quite a while, if she were so inclined. She gripped the case tightly and thought about trashing the whole damn thing.
She knew the hell that addicts went through with their withdrawl; the cramps, the nausea, the tremors. The nightmare that was your body desperately craving the poison, even as it tried to kick it from your system. It fuckin tore people apart, and some never recovered from it.
She zipped the kit shut and stuck it in a drawer next to the bed.
This wasnt her call to make.
Not now, anyway, not like this, not until they could sit down and talk about it.
Lane spun around just in time to see Teresa beginning to slide out of the chair.
"Oh, no you dont!" She got to her just before she hit the floor and grabbed her, lifting her up to her feet. Teresa instinctively laid her head against her shoulder, and Lane felt a pair of arms encircle her waist and tighten their hold convulsively.
"Lets get you to bed." Lane turned her mind to baseball, to basketball anything, to distract her from how good Teresa felt in her arms, how right her place there seemed to be.
Somehow, they made it from the chair to the bed. Lane gently lowered her down, and swung her legs up and in. "Thats it," she said, drawing the white coverlet up and tucking it around her shoulders. "Relax."
It caught her completely by surprise, the small hand that was suddenly on the back of her neck, pulling her down.
This couldnt be happening. It couldnt.
Her mind refused to believe it, refused to accept the fact that here, in the most absurd of all circumstances, Teresa León was kissing her.
And God, what a kiss.
Her lips were so soft, just as Lane had imagined they would be; so inviting, drawing her in. It was as though a supercharged bolt of energy was shooting through her, firing from her mouth to her gut to her groin. Teresas hand tangled in her hair, and she heard a low moan come from beneath her, vibrating deliciously through her own body.
Jesus Christ, how far over the damn line was she now? What line, as a matter of fact? She held no illusions anymore about that annoying little technicality. She was no longer a part of that world, was no longer the woman she once was. Screw it.
She felt herself responding, giving in to her desire, and she reached out a hand to lightly stroke Teresas cheek, so smooth, so cold
Lane forcibly wrenched herself away, groaning, her chest heaving with the effort it took to get a grip on her rampaging need. Damn! What the hell was she thinking? Worse, what was she doing?
"Whats the matter, Lane?" Teresas voice was a throaty, enticing purr, but as Lane gazed down at her all she could see was the pinpoint eyes, all bloodshot and glassy, and the pale face of a near-overdose victim.
"I cant do this," she said through gritted teeth, telling herself this wasnt really Teresa talking, it couldnt be. It was the drug, pushing her, prodding her, the opiate molecules unlocking her endorphin system, making her do and say things she had no control over.
So whats your excuse?
Teresa reached out a hand and began to slowly trace a path around Lanes lips, teasing; her finger was a brand of iron, scorching her. "Dont you want to play?" A lopsided grin.
Lane grabbed at the wrist and pulled it away, stilling it before it could do any further damage.
"This isnt a game. Not to me."
She tried to push the hand down, and Teresa fought her for a moment, resisting, a battle of wills as much as of strength. But the younger woman quickly surrendered, her weakened body no match for Lanes, and the agent was able to settle the arm neatly onto the bed.
Teresa merely gazed at her, her glazed eyes cloudy and uncomprehending, and then there was a flicker of of something, as she recovered a bit of herself, and for a brief, lucid moment felt the shame of what shed done, and who her witness was to it all. She blinked, bit her lip, and twisted her head to the side, as though by turning a blind eye to Lane she could run away, hide from herself.
Ah, shit! Lane straightened and drew back. The pounding in her chest had settled down to a dull roar, and she was left feeling disgusted with herself, guilty over grasping for something shed had no business trying to claim.
Christ, what was next? Stiffs and small animals?
She didnt know what to do, what to say.
She only knew that she hadnt wanted it to be like this. But she had wanted it, and that knowledge, together with the emotions that piggybacked along with it, would not fade under the light of a Mexican dawn.
She could not help herself; she lifted a hand and brushed loose strands of damp hair off Teresas forehead. Green eyes closed at her touch. "You should get some sleep now."
The blonde head wordlessly nodded.
Lane pushed herself up from the bed, pretending not to notice the tears that leaked from Teresas eyes and dripped on the pillow. Tears of silent humiliation, of sorrow, and of regret.
She turned out the small bedside lamp, and then there was only the moon glow in the room, blanketing them. She stood still, cocking her ears to the household. It seemed that their little drama had played out undetected; the casa was still silent, slumbering.
She slowly made her way to a divan next to the window, feeling suddenly tired. She sat down and propped her feet up, too exhausted to bother getting out of her wet clothes. From here, if she wanted to, she could look outside and see all the way down the hillside to the winking lights of Mazatlán.
Directly in front of her, a small figure in a canopied bed finally found a troubled sleep.
She listened to Teresas breathing, in and out, and long after the moon had traveled across the sky a pair of blue eyes remained awake, watching, guarding, too late to keep the darkness away.
It was a hell of a thing to wake up on your own already feeling tired, but that was a sensation well known to Teresa León. You never felt fully rested, and yet at the same time it was so hard to drift off to sleep at night, to give yourself up to that relative peace.
Too tired to think, too tired to eat, too tired to feel, the lethargy gave you the excuse you needed to run away, to hide from it all, to put off dealing with the ordeal of life for one day more just one day more.
It was the drugs of course, that infused her with such a world-weariness, but she dug down deep and found ways to deny that to herself, to look the other way, to excuse herself from its obvious influence.
She wasnt an addict, no, not her. She could quit whenever she wanted to. And it wasnt like she got high all the time, not really. She was simply maintaining, pushing just enough to keep the hounds at bay, not escalating her usage at all.
Her evidence that the drug did not rule her was the fact that she was still able to function during the day, was able to keep things under control. No one had ever suspected a thing. Enrico had kept his mouth shut, happy to keep this private little game of power and domination just between the two of them.
She was mildly concerned about what would happen when her stash ran out; Rico had always obtained the fine Columbian powder for her. But if worse came to worst, she knew that the León warehouses in town and the smaller stores at the casa would have it in abundant supply. Shed have to come up with some excuse as to why she needed it, but shed cross that bridge when she came to it.
She yawned, pulling the cool sheet closer about her chin. She was so damn tired, and her body felt so heavy. She snuggled down into the bed, finding a warm spot, and sighed in exhausted relief. If she just stayed here a bit longer and rested, maybe shed feel better.
She lay there, letting her mind wander, listening to the sounds of the casa as it began to wake.
A faraway door opening and closing.
The birds beginning to sing and chatter outside her balcony as the first flickering fingers of morning light touched the horizon.
She was cold, there was nothing new in that, but the air she breathed in was thick, humid, dewy, carrying on it the promise of the tropical heat of the day to come. Perhaps they would have a rain shower today, a brief, albeit welcomed, respite from the high temperatures.
She shifted in her bed, trying to get comfortable, and felt her body scrape against the relative coarseness of what? Prying open her eyes, she lifted the covers and was surprised to find herself stark naked, with a large white towel half-twisted under her body.
What the ?
Her slowly thumping pulse quickened and her head began to throb as it all came back to her in a flood of images: her usual ritual of shooting up, and how shed floated away. And next how Lane was somehow there, yelling at her, making her do things she didnt want to do, and then oh, God!
She groaned, flinging an arm across her eyes. Shed done it now, all right. The cat was out of the bag, in more ways than one, and Lane Sinclair had seen it all.
"Feeling any better?"
Teresa almost jumped out of her skin at the sound of the low, rumbling voice. She painfully jerked herself up onto one elbow, pulling the covers protectively to her chest. Reluctantly, she turned her gaze towards the divan by her window, knowing whom she would find there. "Ah" She cleared her throat, trying to alleviate her morning hoarseness, buying herself some time even as she felt the heat rise to her cheeks.
A pair of blue eyes peered back at her in the half-light, not helping matters any.
She took a deep breath, feeling the ache in her muscles now, a bone-deep ache that felt as though shed been run over by a truck, and tried it again. "IIm sorry about last night," she said, recognizing immediately how painfully inadequate those words sounded. Remembering too, in a jolt of clarity pushing through her early morning haze, the startled look on the agents face when shed kissed her.
Surprise that had quickly melted into desire.
"How long have you been using?"
"Not long." She shivered, feeling the cold creeping into her gut, and she lifted a hand to rub at a runny nose.
"How long?" The voice was louder, sharper, demanding the truth.
"Well about five years now. On and off." She hesitated, her mind briefly flitting back to those days when it had all seemed like a game. When she and her friends had fooled around with more than their share of recreational drugs. Until Enrico León had introduced her to something infinitely more pleasurable. "II just do enough to maintain. Im not addicted or anything not like youre used to seeing."
"I see all kinds, Teresa," Lane told her, suddenly sounding tired, lost; as though shed misplaced something and didnt quite know where to find it. "And I see nothing new here. Youre a junkie. In a big house, with nice cars and lots of money, but a junkie just the same."
"No!" She angrily replied, feeling the tears spring to her eyes at the dark haired womans accusations. Who was this Lane Sinclair to pass such a judgment upon her? Lane didnt know what her life was like, what she had to go through what she had to live with! She needed her escape, her powdered getaway. Without it, shed forgotten how to survive.
The figure on the divan leaned closer. "There are people places that can help you quit." A pause. "If you want to."
"No," she said weakly, wiping at her eyes. "Its not that simple. You dont understand." How Lane must hate her now, seeing her like this. And what would she think of her, if she really knew the truth?
"Ill help you with it," Lane continued. "Itll be rough at first but they even have those 48 hour rapid detox programs, these days. Im sure Doctor Ciniceros could"
"You dont get it, do you?" She ran a hand through her tousled hair. "I dont want to quit."
The agents eyes widened, clearly taken aback. "That shit will kill you, Teresa, you know that!"
She felt it wash over her then, the pain, the fear, the despair. Lane was holding out a hand to her, a lifeline, and she didnt dare take it. Didnt know how to, really. Her body began to tremble as the cold, the loneliness began to overwhelm her. "You dont understand," she said, hearing her voice break and hating herself for it. "II need it. It makes my life easier it takes me away from it all. Without it, my problems would still be there, you know? In all their fucked up glory." She laughed harshly, knowing that the joke was on her. "I dont want to feel. Dont want to hurt. Dont want to love," she finished desperately. "Cant you see that? I dont. Its all too much!"
Lane was silent for a moment, watching her, a stricken look on her face. And then, "You saved my life. I cant let you throw away yours."
"No." Teresa shook her head. She didnt want to hear this. She didnt.
"But Teresa," Lane said softly, sadly, "last night you nearly died."
"And that matters how?" She gathered the covers to her neck, steeling herself against the rawness of that truth. "Im a junkie. You said it, Lane. Its what I am. And believe me," she said, feeling the tears welling up again, "the thought of dying doesnt frighten me at all. In fact," she bit down on the inside of her mouth, struggling to maintain her composure, "after what Ive been through, death would be a relief."
She could see Lanes posture stiffen, and she noticed then for the first time how wrinkled her clothing was, and how drawn and tired she looked. God, she mustve been there all night!
The agent didnt say a word. But her eyes grew hooded as she continued to regard her intently, and Teresa began to feel nervous, uncomfortable under her intense scrutiny. Shed just bared her soul to this woman; told her more than shed ever intended to. Had almost told her everything. But she didnt.
Even with the drugs, it hurt too damn much.
"So what do you think of me now, huh?" Vulnerable as she was at this moment, she had to ask, had to know. Because for some reason, Lane Sinclairs opinion of her mattered.
She watched as the tall agent continued to stare at her, noting how the planes of her face had shifted into a blank, unreadable mask. And then, without a word, Lane stood up and began to slowly walk out of the room.
"Lane? Lane wait!" She fought the panic rising in her chest as Lane continued towards the door. "Dont go!" she cried out at last, pleading. She who was used to giving orders to others and having them obeyed, knew that the likes of Lane Sinclair didnt give a damn about her power, her wealth. She would not be controlled.
The door opened and closed and then Lane was gone without a backwards glance.
And once more Teresa was alone in her lofty refuge, a butterfly, trapped, a creature who didnt really want to escape after all. Outside, she heard the steadily increasing, tap-tap patter of water hitting the leaves, as the low, heavy clouds opened and the rains began to fall.
During the following week, Lane Sinclair made it her business to focus on the essentials: her continued re-habilitation, getting stronger day by day. And on simply doing her job, throwing herself into her new position as a consultant to the Mazatlán cartel. Getting to know the ropes, and working as best she could with Manuel Diaz.
Her heightened involvement with the business took up much of her time, and so she told herself shed barely noticed that the dinner invitations from Teresa had ceased. It was just as well, she rationalized. Because what did she have to say, really, to a junkie who refused to quit? To a woman who was so unrepentant about the addiction that would ultimately lead to her destruction, that she didnt seem to care one way or the other whether she lived or died?
In her line of work Lane had seen a multitude of creative variations on the why I use story. And there always was a story, that was for sure. From the affluent suburban school kids outside San Diego whod had too much money and spare time on their hands; mommy didnt love them, and daddy was always away, so what did it matter, right? To the users in the barrio of El Paso who the system had impoverished; they might not have had two nickels to rub together to afford a decent meal for themselves or their kids, but somehow they found the where-with-all to score dime bags from the local dealers.
End users all, in the infinitely long line of the drug distribution chain.
It was a snake with its tail in its mouth, she considered. Was it the supply that was the problem? The demand? Or was it a combination of both, creating a toxic, interdependent environment where one could not exist without the other?
But which end to attack first: the head or the tail? And therein lay the problem that far greater analytical minds than hers were charged with figuring out. Getting paid six and seven figure salaries to analyze, compartmentalize, and adjudicate.
Too bad they hadnt come up with any solid damn answers yet.
And until that time came, getting involved in the wheres and whys of drug addiction only complicated the matter, as far as Lane was concerned. She wasnt entirely without sympathy to the plight of the user, understanding how addiction tore families apart. But she had far more empathy for the poor 12 year-old school kid in the inner city whod gotten hooked by the older pushers hanging around the basketball courts; a kid who was struggling to make his way in this life, trying to fit in, than she did for people who ought to have known better. People who were given a choice, and consistently selected the one that was bad for them.
Because they could afford to.
Or because society indulged them and was content to look the other way, as long as it remained untouched by it all.
But no one escaped unscathed, undamaged by the stultifying effects of using how it slowly leached away the essence of what made you human. Rich or poor, Christian or Muslim, short or tall, there was an ugly side to addiction. And whether you ended up dead in an alley next to a trash dumpster or on silk sheets in a canopied bed, dead was still dead.
All week long Lane had fought with her inner demons, angry with herself for feeling an attraction for someone as messed up as Teresa León obviously was, and angry with Teresa for doing it to herself. She wanted to understand why she had chosen such a path, she did, but at the same time she knew that whatever explanation Teresa might offer her, whatever the hardships in her life were that shed alluded to, none of that mattered now.
Lane was on a mission. And nothing would get in the way of her seeing it through. Not that prick Manuel, not that bastard David Starks, and not the slight blonde woman whose emotional caprices frustrated her on a daily basis.
And so as the pain from her physical wounds had begun to fade away, shed concentrated on business matters. Seeing Teresa only in formal meetings, where their interactions were brief and perfunctory. Shed ended up spending more time after all with Manuel Diaz, reviewing security issues.
It was plain to her that Enricos former right-hand man hated her, but he had enough good sense to recognize something profitable or potentially beneficial for the business when he saw it. Although hed maintained a healthy skepticism towards her and her true motives, hed listened to her proposals, and shed made some progress. Of course, the fact that she hadnt ratted on him to Teresa about the stunt hed pulled with the barbell in the gym had scored her a few points, just as shed hoped.
Under the umbrella of a reluctant, enforced truce, shed worked with him over the past week in reviewing the encryption programs they used in transmitting and storing their data.
And, damn, they were good.
Shed known that drug traffickers typically had access to highly sophisticated encryption technology. Hell, they had plenty of money to pay for it. In any event, the coding was far beyond what the DEA or any other law enforcement authority had the capacity to break quickly. What good did it do you if it took you a full day to crack a 30 second transmission? By that time, the actors and the deals were long gone, making the entire exercise frustratingly pointless.
So instead shed proposed that they add another insulating layer in their cyberspace communications by utilizing Internet chat rooms protected by firewalls. Uninvited guests not permitted, thank you very much. Additionally, shed suggested that those communication records be directed towards a computer they could set up on a ship off the coast of Mexico. Then, every far-flung part of the operation could feed its information on each days drug sales and movements to the ship, knowing that if one computer were taken down, it would be impossible to trace the rest of the network.
Later, if Teresa and Manuel would listen, shed get around to working on their cell phone usage. A whole sub-operation of the cartel was dedicated towards developing cloning technology, stealing phone numbers that were assigned to legitimate users, using them briefly and then discarding them, moving on to new numbers. Maybe there was a thing or two she could teach them about that.
Was she giving away the farm, revealing proprietary governmental secrets? Perhaps. But all bets were off now on this operation, and in her heart she felt that it didnt matter anyway, in the long run. At the blurring speed at which technology was being developed, it was a constant battle to refine offensive and defensive techniques, where the latest innovation was quick to trump the previous status quo. An escalating competition, with the good guys and the bad guys taking turns at the top from week-to-week.
Good guys and bad guys.
If only she could figure out which one she was at the moment.
"Ya got a cigarette, Manuel?"
What the hell. It didnt hurt to ask. And God, she was dying for one.
She stood with Manuel just outside the opened front door of the casa. It was mid morning on a cloudless, sun splashed day, and a light westerly wind ruffled the tall palms. It had been raining on and off over the past week, a seasonal thing, she knew, but on this day the sun god had decided to show himself after all.
"You should be careful." Manuel lifted a crumpled pack to her, his dark eyes as they regarded her looking vaguely reptilian. "Its a bad habit."
"There are worse."
She knew better than to wait for a light from him, and so she fished a book of matches from the pocket of her khakis. They were waiting for the vehicles to pull around to the front courtyard; waiting for Teresa. For today was the day shed agreed to meet with Felix Javier Benitez, the head of the Juárez cartel.
The man whod bought off David Starks.
And the man whod coldly ordered the execution of Enrico León - el Halcón.
Meeting with Benitez meant that the first phase of the plan was underway, and a part of Lane thrilled at that. She was up and running again, firing on all cylinders. Focused on the job she had to do, and nothing else.
She struck a match and lit the cigarette, cupping it against the breeze. "Hows it coming with the off-shore computer dump?" she asked, blowing out a plume of smoke. The irony of it was rich, she thought. Helping to protect the cartel from from what shed go ahead and do anyway.
"Okay," Manuel grunted, lighting a cigarette of his own. "We have a trawler captain already in our shrimp fleet lined up to handle it." He flashed a tight grin at her as he exhaled twin trails of smoke from his nostrils. "That was a pretty good idea," he drawled, "for a gringa. Easy set-up. Mobility. And we can use the radar to monitor any unauthorized approaches."
"And if something does go wrong, its easy enough to toss the hardware overboard."
"Or the ship could go missing," Manuel added, his smile grown cold. "Its a big ocean. Shit happens."
Lane studied Manuel carefully. Tall, muscular, and fairly good-looking, but oh-so twisted. There was one helluva disconnect with this guy, there had to be. She had no doubt in her mind that hed order the sinking of a poor fishermans trawler with all hands aboard, just as soon as hed select the beef over the fish for dinner. Just the sort of major domo Enrico León wouldve needed by his side a man who was unafraid of dirtying his hands with blood while Rico was free to look the other way staying clean, distanced.
Lane shelved that distasteful thought aside when two black GMC Suburbans came grinding around from the rear garages. There was a single driver in the first vehicle; three men in the second. The agent knew that all of the men would be heavily armed. Still, just the two SUVs would be considerably reduced from the amount of muscle power one normally wouldve taken to such a critical summit meeting, where positioning and posturing was everything.
Truth be known, the lack of manpower made her slightly nervous, but Teresa had been adamant. She hadnt wanted to put on a great show of force, not at the outset. Felix Benitez was expecting a weak, grieving widow whose world had been turned upside down upon the death of her husband. In her confusion and despair, she would need someone to lean on. Someone to guide her, ready to step into Enricos shoes.
Someone like Felix Benitez, perhaps.
Well, if that was the scenario he was expecting, Teresa had decided to give it to him, down to meeting him on what at face value was neutral territory, but really was not: the deck of his 120 foot yacht. So let him think he was the one in charge let him feel it. It simply made their plan easier to execute.
Manuel straightened, and waved at the drivers. He turned to Lane, hitching at his belt buckle. A paunchy gut was just beginning to form, pressing against his belt. The lout needed to start spending more time in a gym lifting weights instead of dropping them on people, Lane wryly considered.
"With Benitez today," Manuel began, a barely concealed smirk on his face, "you probably want to ring his neck like the scrawny old rooster he is, eh? After all, the bastards people put what three bullets into you?"
"Four." Lane spat out a loose piece of tobacco. "But whos counting?" She flicked her cigarette down and ground it out under her foot, knowing the butt would be magically whisked away before even half an hour had passed. "Dead, Benitez is of no use to us. Alive, we get him to reveal his contacts in the states the location of his stash houses, all while we squeeze off his supply down below. We take the legs right out from under him."
A frown creased Manuels dark features. "I still dont like the idea of exposing ourselves to him."
Lane could feel the danger in him, the hostility. God, she could smell it! He hadnt been bluffing when hed told her hed be with her every step of the way, watching, waiting for the moment when she betrayed herself. "Give him a little candy," she said calmly, "let him get a taste for it, and he cant help but want to come back for more."
"And then well have him." Manuel finished, his eyes glazing over in a far-away look as he mentally played out the scenario to what was for him a logical conclusion. He blinked, and locked a cold stare on her. "The bastards mine, Sinclair, do you hear? For Enrico."
"On what?" He thrust his chin out, his antagonism bubbling to the surface.
Lane turned away from him, facing instead towards the click of footsteps sounding closer on the tiled floor inside the house.
"On what the señora wants."
Teresa swept up to them, dressed casually but classically in a pair of tan pants, matching flats, and a yellow tank top covered by a loose-fitting white blouse that was tied off at her waist. Golden hoops dangled from her ears and a chunky jeweled bracelet glittered on her wrist. She looked every inch the wealthy young socialite she was, heading out for a day on the water.
The blonde passed through the front doors, leaving them conspicuously open behind her. She stepped out into the sunlight, and slid a pair of dark sunglasses onto her face as she strode towards the lead SUV.
"Andale." A slight pause, and then, "Lane, youre with me."
To be continued.
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