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.
It would have taken a week to make the overland journey from Mazatlán to the southern highlands of Oaxaca, traversing across the rugged Sierra Madre Del Sur. In the old days that was the only way it could have been done; a laborious, maddeningly slow trek, where you sweltered during the hot days and froze during the mountain nights.
There was something to be said for having a private plane at your disposal, Teresa León considered. It meant less time exposed on the open roads, where anything could and did happen, in a rugged landscape where the rule of local law sometimes came down to who had the most firepower. It meant that although they flew, they didnt have to make a stopover in Mexico City, as did the commercial flights that plied the skies from the northwest to the southeast. Instead, theyd landed directly in Oaxacas capital, and from there had been met by a helicopter that was to ferry them the short distance to Guillermo Ruizs mountain retreat just southwest of the great ruins of Monte Albán.
It was a different world in this part of Mexico, Teresa knew, a region largely populated by native Indian populations that had tilled the soil and waged both war and peace with one another for thousands of years. The land was a lush, verdant network of mountains and valleys, dotted with cornfields and poppies, coffee plants and coca. And then there was the marijuana, sprouting up virtually untended everywhere, growing with the tenacious impudence of weeds that were hard to kill.
The corn and poppies favored the lower altitude, while the coffee and coca plants required the higher, terraced elevations where both cash crops were cultivated interchangeably. In recent years, both Teresa and Enrico had known that farmers like Guillermo Ruiz were becoming more and more brazen. Where once they had kept illicit crops hidden in the remotest regions of the land, far from patrolling troops, now they were hidden in plain sight, growing unmolested until maturity, when they would be harvested by the local campesinos.
It was early evening as the helicopter began to swoop down towards Ruizs hacienda. The hum of the rotors deafened her, and the maneuverings of the chopper left her feeling slightly nauseous as she desperately tried to orient herself somewhere between the earth and sky. But she dared not betray any weakness, not in front of Ruizs pilot, or Manuel Diaz. Only Lane Sinclair knew that she was in some distress. The tall woman was sitting in the seat next to her, and though there had been very little conversation exchanged through the headsets by any of them during the short ride, she had seen a concerned glance or two from Lane in reaction to the rigid tensing of her body.
"Thats got to be it." Lanes voice crackled in her ears as the red-tiled roofs of a series of buildings drew closer. A masters house, dependencies, guest cottages, workshops, storage it was a miniature town unto itself, seeming to suddenly sprout from the thick surrounding vegetation.
"Si," The pilot said, turning his head to the side as he searched for the helipad.
"Good," Teresa silently breathed. Shed been recovering nicely over the past week from her bout with the flu, but she still felt shaky at times, and was still coming to terms with the fact that for the first time in years, her body and mind were absent the constant, incessant craving for the white powder that had been her addiction.
But she was feeling it, all the little physical aches and pains that shed been numb to in the past, and Lane had teased her that once this was all over with, shed lock her in the gym and never let her out until she could do at least ten chin-ups in a row. Teresa had laughed, and told her that in that case, shed be stuck in the gym for one hell of a long time. Workouts in a gym? A massage - yes. Chin-ups - no. She had her standards to maintain.
The helicopter finally set down on a mountaintop landing zone at the edge of Ruizs complex, and Teresa felt the light touch of Lanes hand on her back as they ducked down and exited the aircraft. God, what would she have done over these past couple of weeks without the agents support? She doubted that she ever could have done it on her own ever. Lane and Mia gave her the reasons that she needed, reasons shed never been willing to allow herself, until now.
"This way, Señora." They left the pilot with the helicopter and followed a squat, olive-skinned man, clearly of Indian descent, to a waiting jeep. "Señor Ruiz anxiously awaits you."
As he grabbed their overnight bags, their guides dark eyes dropped to the bulges of the pistols that were clearly visible beneath Manuel and Lanes shirts, but he said nothing. They were in the wild west of Mexico now, where carrying weapons was the norm rather than the exception. Now, it was Lanes turn to be tense, Teresa could feel it. It was just the three of them, against the small army of men Ruiz maintained in this region, but she herself had insisted on not bringing any of the León guaruras with them.
One man? Three men? Half a dozen? What difference did it make when you were outnumbered a hundred to one?
They clambered into the jeep; Manuel in front with the guide and she and Lane in the back, and they proceeded down a well-kept gravel road, past thick, cultivated vegetation, to the main house.
"This way," the guide said, alighting from the jeep and leading them up onto a wrap-around porch. They passed through louvered French doors and into a sweeping entrance hall two stories high. The hall was decorated with native artwork, and a side-table and chairs of solid mahogany that were fine examples of 19th century Spanish craftsmanship.
Some farmhouse, Teresa thought, as their guide led them down the hall and through several more rooms that were graciously furnished in woods and textiles, with hardwood floors and rare tile wall coverings, back to the rear of the house and another room; a room with a heavy oaken door, guarded by two men.
With a barely perceptible nod, the guide stepped past the two guards, knocked softly, and then opened the door. He motioned for Teresa and her group to follow him.
They moved into a room that was gloomy and dark thanks to thick, red velvet drapes hanging from floor-to-ceiling windows, keeping out the light. Despite that barrier to airflow, the temperature in the room was cool, thanks to high plastered walls and the quiet whir of twin ceiling fans. Teresa blinked, her eyes needing a few moments to adjust to the dim interior; at the same time, feeling slightly disoriented, she heard a low, raspy voice emerge from the darkness.
"Welcome, Señora León."
A scrape of a chair against finished wood.
"It is a pleasure to meet you," the voice continued, "although I regret it is under such unfortunate circumstances. Please, accept my condolences on the loss of your fine husband, a man whom I considered a great friend."
Teresa moved towards the voice, a fly towards the spider, fighting against the stab of fear that persisted in poking her in the gut. Okay. Just what the hell was she doing here, anyway? Here, high in the hills, trying to woo one of the regions major growers of coca and poppies from Felix Javier Benitez. Guillermo Ruiz was an old pro; hed been in the farming business for a long time. She remembered that much from Enricos tales of his business trips to the Ruiz hacienda in the hill country. What chance did she - a relative novice to this side of the business - have of convincing him? But in the end, one thing gave her confidence; Teresa knew what it would come down to in order to sway his allegiance; it was money.
Nothing more, nothing less.
That was one thing shed learned well from Enrico, and perhaps from her parents before that; throw enough money at a problem for long enough, and it was bound to go away, mostly, whether it was a balky trade minister looking for the mordida, or a little blonde girl who wanted only to be loved.
"Thank you," Teresa responded, surprised at the calm in her own voice. Her eyes began to resolve the cloying darkness into shapes and forms; a large carved pine desk, and a man of medium height who stood behind it wearing a casual white guayabera, his face still hidden in the shadows. There was a single chair in front of the desk, and two, no - three men hanging back against the far wall, behind Ruiz, just as Lane and Manuel stood behind her. "My husband always spoke well of you. Guillermo Ruiz is a good man, he would say. A fine farmer, husband, and father." God, she was almost choking on the words, knowing that maybe one out of those three characterizations were true, at best. But it was necessary to get the niceties out of the way first, before they got down to business.
"You flatter me," he rasped, and she saw the flash of a gold tooth as he smiled. He held out a hand and she took it, feeling the cool coarseness of his skin, an echo of the country farmer he once was. "Just as you will forgive me for flattering you when I say that Enricos description of his beautiful wife failed to do justice to the lovely vision before me now."
"You are too kind, Señor," she replied, wondering just when she ever could have possibly been the topic of conversation between Ruiz and Enrico during their meetings. Was it before the cervezas and the blow? Or after they took the willing young local village girls to their beds?
"Please, Señora, siéntese!" Ruiz said, gesturing towards the single chair. She slid onto the hard, wooden seat and only then did he take his own chair, facing her across the open desk. And now she could see him a bit more clearly, in the thin shafts of fading light managing to flicker into the room. His skin was dark and deeply lined, his face like the mountains and valleys of Oaxaca itself, with a growth of gray stubble at his chin, a floppy salt-and-pepper mustache clinging above his upper lip. And a thick belly that spoke of too many nights of over-indulgence strained against the buttons of his shirt.
"You and your associates," he nodded a brief welcome towards Manuel, whom he would have known from before," will be my guests for dinner, si?"
"It will be our pleasure, Señor Ruiz," Teresa told him, acutely aware of Manuel and Lane standing behind her, silent.
"Bueno." Ruiz motioned to the guide, and the squat man now transformed into a helpful waiter, moving to a side cabinet. A clink of glassware later he returned, bearing a tray with two small glasses, a smaller bowl filled with coarse salt, a plate holding a freshly sliced limón, and a large bottle of aged, golden mezcal the native drink of Oaxaca.
Teresas stomach lurched, but she fought to keep her features schooled in a mask of pleasant sociability. God, the last thing she felt like now was drinking a shot of the hard liquor, not after the week shed had, but in her day shed drunk her share, partying with Enrico and his friends from Cancún to Campeche. Much as she hated the thought of it, she knew what was expected of her now - the elaborate ceremony that was associated with the proper consumption of this spirit distilled from the spiky-leafed maguey, not to mention the occasional swallowing of the grub worm that accompanied every bottle; a worm that lived in the maguey agave plants.
Ruiz grinned at her, flashing his tooth, as with a great flourish the guide poured two generous helpings of the mezcal. The heady smell of it wafted to her nose, mingling with the sharp scent of the lime, and already her senses felt like they were spinning. And the fat grub bobbing and drifting in the bottom of the bottle wasnt helping matters, either.
"Let us drink to good business partners." Ruiz licked the back of his hand between his thumb and index finger, and then sprinkled salt on it, and Teresa did the same to her own hand.
"To partnership and loyalty," she added, lifting her glass to his.
Ruiz eyed her carefully. "To partnership, loyalty and to trust."
She silently nodded, and with that, Ruiz began to complete the ritual. With practiced moves she followed him; licking some of the salt from her hand, immediately sucking on a wedge of the lime, then, drinking the shot; feeling it burn the back of her throat and scorch a path down to her stomach; and finally, licking more salt before shed even drawn in a fresh breath.
She replaced her glass on the table, forcing herself to keep her gaze on Ruiz. He would be watching her, judging her, and how she handled herself would be critical to the success of their plan.
"Well done, Señora," he said, grinning openly now, and she could not help but feel a faint smile touch her lips in return; damn it, shed done well!
"Your hospitality is most welcome," she smoothly replied, already feeling a light buzz on her empty stomach. It had been a long time since shed done mezcal, and she had forgotten the not entirely unpleasant state of non-reality that always followed the initial burn. In any event, Ruiz seemed satisfied; he pushed himself back in his chair, his posture definitely more relaxed.
"So " the farmer cleared his throat, "I understand you are looking for more supply."
"You could say that, yes." Teresa let her finger lightly trace a path around the lip of her empty glass. "In fact, Im looking to double it."
"Qué?" Ruiz clearly had not been expecting this, and a deep furrow cut across his brow. "Señora, surely you must understand this, I cannot do!"
"Why not?" Teresa demanded, the mezcal making her bold.
"Because it simply cannot be done, not right away. I can increase production"
"But we would have to wait another whole growing season to see the results."
Ruiz rubbed at the stubble on his chin. "Yes, yes we would."
Teresa leaned forward, locking her eyes on his. "That is not good enough, Señor. We need it now. The demand is now." She lowered her voice to a seductive whisper, instinctively knowing what kind of man Guillermo Ruiz was a man not so very different from Enrico, in terms of what made him tick. "The opportunity is now."
Ruiz licked his lips, considering her words. "If I give to you, now," he said slowly, "then I must take from somewhere else."
"That is not my concern," Teresa replied, knowing full well he meant Felix Benitez.
"It would be bad for business," Ruiz continued, "very bad. There are risks involved. Other customers might not like it so much."
"I can make it very good for business," Teresa soothed him, pouring it on, ignoring Lanes shifting form behind her. She was making headway with Ruiz, she could feel it. "There is a premium to be paid to a man who takes risks. Who makes bold, profitable moves. Youll be dealing with only one customer, then. Much less bother."
"More risk," Ruiz stubbornly replied, still not convinced.
"More risk, yes." Teresa slowly licked her index finger, and then let it travel to the back of Ruizs hand where a few stray granules of salt remained. "But more reward." She swept them up onto her finger and returned it to her mouth, licking it clean. "I want twice as much product from you, Señor, and Im prepared to pay you three times your price."
Teresa had to admit it to herself, she privately enjoyed the way the farmers dark eyes bulged, the way a sudden high color flushed his skin. She knew the power she had over men, and the way they so often underestimated her, as Enrico had for so long. It appeared as though this were going to be easier than shed first thought.
Another drink was poured, and another shot of mezcal consumed, with Ruiz obviously weighing his options. "Very well," he said at last, the heat of the mezcal coursing through him, and Teresa gifted him with a captivating smile.
"However," he held up a hand, "the way I do business, is based on trust. I trusted your husband, Señora. El Halçon was good to us all." He leaned forward, his eyes peering at her through the gloom, the lip behind his mustache faintly twitching. "I dont know you, Señora, and you dont know me " he paused and reached down into a desk drawer, taking out a package the size of a small brick. The package was wrapped in coarse brown paper, tied up with a rough string. " or my product." He produced a pocketknife and cut into the side of the package; a fine white powder spilled out onto the table.
Like the beam from a lighthouse cutting through the fog, Teresa felt it then. The panic. The fear. Cursed herself, even as her mouth began to flood with the anticipation of it; the high. Had it only been a week without a hit? God, it felt more like a year.
"It is about trust, Señora," Ruiz repeated, producing an oblong mirror and a razor blade. "I cannot afford anything less. El Halçon he understood this."
Ill just fucking bet he did, Teresa thought, furious yet again at her dead husband. She stared at the cocaine on the table. Through the open windows drifted in the scent of hot charcoals, of roasting pig, and the tinny sound of a distant radio playing a Latin tune, yet it felt as though the walls were drawing in on her.
And inside the room she could feel it feel it; the sudden quiet, the weight of the air so heavy on her shoulders, and the creak of the floorboard behind her as Lane moved closer. Wanting to protect her, no doubt, from herself.
"You can trust me, Señor," she said, imagining her heart had just skipped a beat or two in her chest. "As you were able to trust my husband."
Ruiz grinned, the gold of his incisor flashing. He turned his attention to the task at hand, cutting a small pile of powder on the mirror into four thin white lines. From a money clip in his breast pocket, he peeled off a crisp $100 bill, and rolled it into a tight tube. Gringo money, for a gringo vice.
The stuttering of Teresas heart moved down into her belly, and as her stomach began to flutter uncontrollably, she could tell that Lane had drawn closer now. GGod, she could feel the heat of her stare right behind her, but she purposefully ignored her. What was the problem? Hell, it wasnt as if this were the first time shed ever had a toot or two, right? No big deal. Surely, Manuel had stood by while Enrico had done just the same; perhaps hed even joined in the festivities. So, why couldnt Lane be cool about it just this one time?
Okay, so shed been clean for a week. That was progress, right? Just this little taste, and shed go back on the wagon. No big deal. In for a penny, in for a pound, and, despite the light-headedness she was feeling from the mezcal, she knew she had to see this thing through with Ruiz, to gain his trust, or all bets were off.
A clearing of a throat behind her.
"Ah, Señora León, are you sure this is wise? After all, youre just recovering from the flu."
Teresa inwardly sighed, and a tension found its way to her lips. She did not dare show any sign of hesitation now. "No, I would like to accept Señor Ruizs hospitality."
"Let me, instead."
Ruizs eyes narrowed, and he sniffed at the air; a bloodhound on the scent of suspicion. "This is for the Señora alone," he said, his voice hard, and as he spoke his men stepped forward, moving out of the shadows.
"Thank you for your concern," she said, barely keeping her anger at Lane from her voice, "but no."
"No," she repeated, turning her head sideways towards the sound of Lanes voice, mentally willing her to cease her protests. Voicing such irrational concern wouldnt help matters, not now. She redirected her attention back towards Ruiz. "Im sure the Señors fine product will do me a world of good."
Ruiz grinned at her. "If it doesnt make you feel better, it will at least make you forget about it for a while, Señora," he chuckled.
And before Teresa could even think about what he was doing, his head was down, over the mirror, and then came the harsh snuffling as he snorted the cocaine, one line into each nostril.
"Ah." He looked up from the table, swallowing, loudly clearing his throat, and Teresa could see the traces of the fine white powder that had caught in his mustache. "I do not wish to brag about the quality of what I have to offer, Señora." He pushed the mirror towards her and offered her the rolled-up bill. "Instead, I let you be the judge."
She took the makeshift tube from him, feeling the light scrape on the back of her hand from his callused fingers as he made the transfer; saw the dulled flicker of the flame burning deep within the recesses of his dark eyes, and saw in them, too, the reflection of her own apprehension her fear and her desire.
It was like riding a bike, actually, she considered, as she dipped her head towards the mirror, wondering if Ruiz could see how badly her hands were shaking. You never really forgot how to do it, although sometimes you forgot just how good it felt.
And God, did it ever.
Two sharp inhales later and it was all there, just as shed remembered it; the bitter taste in the back of her throat and the mucus, yes, but also the amazing rush ripping through her body like a lit fuse, tripping her heart into a frantic pounding rhythm and electrifying her brain. Yes, it was good. Very good.
She pushed back in her chair, attempting to gather herself, but Ruiz knew. He had to.
"You like, Señora, eh?"
Her senses were heightened, amazingly alert in the untethered freedom of her high, and she didnt have to turn around to know that behind her, Lane was absolutely simmering. But at the moment, she didnt particularly give a damn about that. If the agent didnt settle down, and soon, Ruiz would become suspicious. He wasnt a total idiot, and if he didnt suspect something already, then Manuel surely did. She had to carry on, to stick to the plan. "Si, Señor, I like." She eased the mirror back towards him. "Very much."
The dinner was a celebration of a sort, Lane Sinclair could tell that much. Although, whatever the hell they were celebrating, Lane wanted no part of. Hmnn was it the latest business deal Ruiz had just put together? The completion of another bountiful, deadly harvest? Or, perhaps Ruizs barely-contained anticipation at possibility of bedding the widow of his late business partner?
Lanes stomach turned at the thought of that last, telling herself that the uneasy feeling in her gut had everything to do with that repulsive option, and nothing to do with the three, four, or was it six shots of mezcal shed consumed by now, punctuated with tumblers full of the punch-like but potent local pulque.
A night of hard drinking after a day of being pissed off at the world, this was nothing new to her; just like old times back in El Paso, or San Diego, or Miami.
Back then, in those not so far away-days, shed been alone with her V.O. and cigarettes, her cable t.v. and uneaten frozen dinners. Now, she was alone in a crowd, with the enticing scent of pork and pollo thick on the air; slamming back mezcal as if it were Kool-aid, with the image in front of her, burning into her minds eye, of Guillermo Ruiz and Teresa León enjoying one anothers company. As if watching Teresa snort coke this afternoon, after having gone through the hell of that rapid detox, hadnt been enough of a nightmare.
Jesus Christ, but it made her want to puke; the way Teresa found everything Ruiz said so funny, the way the fucking drug farmer kept inching closer to her throughout the endless, multi-course meal. Until finally his arm was casually draped around the back of her chair, his fingers brushing against her bare shoulder as he expansively gestured with his other hand, explaining to her how difficult it was to be him; the worries and the travails, the effort it took to be so great a man in so backward a country.
Lanes vision narrowed as she took another swallow of pulque. For her, there was no music; dancing among the workers had not begun in one corner of the large, open dining room, and Manuel Diaz was not eyeing Teresa and Ruiz as intensely and possessively as she was.
God, there they were, toasting and drinking once more to who-knew-what. She could see the smooth whiteness of Teresas neck as she tilted her head back and laughed, her golden hair shimmering in the candlelight, the watery brightness of her eyes, shining gazing only at an overweight, scheming pig, a man old enough to be her grandfather, a man who couldnt seem to keep his roving hands off her.
Lanes stomach lurched yet again, and she wondered just how much more of this little fiesta she would be forced to endure. The deal was done, they had what they wanted from Ruiz, and the sooner they bid him goodnight, the sooner it would be morning and they could get out of here. Away, far away from Ruiz and his shit, out of these mountains, out of this fucking country, for that matter, separating themselves at last from the drugs, the sadness, the relentless knowing that no matter how far you ran, you could never really escape it all.
Who was she kidding, anyway? Teresa León was a drug lords wife, a woman of a certain class, raised in a certain style that shed become accustomed to, and then some. What sort of life could Teresa and she possibly have together, on the run, hiding in some witness protection program, maybe, with a frightened little girl in tow, besides? What the hell kind of life would that be?
You idiot, Lane chastised herself, gazing listlessly into her glass of mezcal. An unlucky grub lurked in the bottom of the liquid; dead, adrift in a sea of gold. The irony of it was not lost on her. Its the god-damned booze talking. Snap out of it! She and Teresa had a plan, one that now included Mia. Just a little shut-eye, that was what she needed. Sleep this thing off, and shed see everything clearly once again, in the morning.
A ripple of motion.
Teresa had risen, excusing herself, and there was Ruiz, kissing the back of her hand like a teen-aged gallant as she did so. Lane felt her own legs pushing herself to her feet, and she was surprised at how steady she felt as she followed Teresa around a corner towards an alcove where a bathroom was discretely tucked away.
Lane quickly covered the distance between them, telling herself that Teresa was only playing a role, that shed done what she had to today now to stick to the plan and snare Ruiz. So shed had a bit of a slip-up, so what? They would deal with it, and move on, right?
She knew that she knew it, but as Teresas hand touched the doorknob and opened it, Lane tracked up behind her, shoved the door open and pushed them both inside the small powder room, slamming the door shut behind her. She spun the younger woman around, pressing her against the wall in the same motion, and, as she always had, dammit, let her anger and her fear do the talking.
"What the hell do you think youre doing?" Lane hissed, determined not to flinch at the look of surprise, then resentment, that flashed in the bloodshot green eyes that glared back at her.
"Sticking to our plan, remember?" Teresa angrily tried to shake her loose.
"That plan does not include getting yourself hooked again," Lane shot back, and then, helplessly, cursing herself for it, "or getting laid."
"Really." Teresas voice was cold, and with another shake of her arm, she was free. "What a surprise, coming from you." She tried to step past her. "I did what I had to do. Tough, if you dont like it."
"I dont." Lane placed both her palms against the coarse wooden wall, one on either side of Teresa; a flimsy cage, restraining her.
"Well, thats too damn bad." She slipped beneath Lanes left arm and headed for the door. "Ill find another bathroom. Something stinks in here."
Lane dropped her head, eyeing the cracked tile floor, feeling as though the pounding music from the other room had actually taken up residence within her skull. You are a drunk fool. "Teresa," she called out, hearing the most unbecoming break in her voice, "wait."
By God, Teresa must have heard it too, because, as livid as she apparently was, she stopped at the door and turned around, wordlessly folding her arms across her chest.
"Look, IIm sorry," Lane tried, willing her voice to soften. "I just want us to get this over with, and get the hell out of here. Tell Ruiz youve had enough for one night, huh?"
Teresa regarded her carefully, the fire leaving her eyes as her angry breaths steadied, then slowed. Finally, she released a heavy sigh, and her gaze darted to one side. "Soon," she said haltingly. "He he wont last much longer. Not the way hes been drinking and hitting the coke."
A burst of raucous laughter sounded from the dining room.
"Its not him that Im worried about," Lane grimly replied. Knowing, as soon as the words left her lips, how judgmental they sounded. But damn it, shed been unable to stop herself.
Teresa lifted her head, shooting a deadly, accusing glare her way. "Ill see you in the morning, Lane," she said, turning on her heel and heading out the door.
Lane stared at the back of the door as it slammed shut, and she squeezed her eyes closed in response. But could not shut her ears against the drunken greetings as Teresa returned to Ruiz and his friends, and she heard the farmer begin to slur his way through another pointless toast. Pissed off, tongue-tied, and frustrated by her inability yet again to adequately express herself when it really mattered, she decided the last thing she should do at the moment, was rejoin the damned party.
So instead, she pushed out of the bathroom and into the darkened hallway. She kept going, past a sideboard from which she grabbed a half-filled bottle of mezcal, past a bored guard at the front door from whom she bummed a pack of cigarettes, and down the dirt and gravel path past the guest cottages towards the beginnings of the lush forest. Once there, her chest heaving, she drank in the cool mountain air and the mezcal, staring at the star-filled night sky above, until the tears stung her eyes and burned her cheeks.
Fuck it all.
The music was getting louder, so much so that after a time Teresa couldnt really hear what Ruiz was saying anymore. But he kept on nodding and smiling, and drinking and licking at his mustache-draped lips in a most unattractive fashion, so Teresa kept smiling and nodding back, removing his hand, however, with a laugh and a light slap when it traveled too low down her shoulder, or too high up her leg.
Shed been well aware that Lane had stormed out of the hacienda; shed looked back towards the doorway a time or two, thinking the agent might return, but she hadnt. Lane had been right about everything. She knew that, but what was left of her frayed pride had gotten in the way, and so shed stayed at the dinner celebration long after the point when shed actually been preparing to leave: the point, in fact, when that infuriating Lane Sinclair had virtually accosted her in the bathroom.
Okay. So maybe shed drunk more than shed had to, snorted more than shed needed to. All that proved was that she was the helpless, hopeless junkie she knew herself to be. If if she could just get away from this, away from the temptation, go someplace safe, just herself and Lane and Mia, then, things would be easier. She could get clean and stay clean, and put this mess of a life behind her.
In a slow, exaggerated gesture, Ruiz motioned a server for yet another round of mezcal.
God, no! No way could she handle anymore! Her head was spinning, though her fight with Lane had cleared it for a time, and the verde con espinazo shed eaten earlier, pork in a green bean sauce, was threatening to make a return visit.
"No more for me, Señor," she told him, rising somewhat unsteadily to her feet.
"Qué?" He frowned at her like a child whod been denied his lollipop. "You c-cannot leave, Señora. The night is young," he leered, flashing his gold tooth, "and so am I. The mezcal, you see makes me young like a bull!" He slapped at his chest as if that somehow proved his point.
"Your youth and energy, Señor," Teresa replied, her tongue feeling strangely thick and numb in her mouth, "put me to shame. Please let me go rest for a while, a siesta, and then Ill come back for more of your hospitality, si?" She offered him what she hoped passed for a convincing smile.
The farmer grunted, then sloppily kicked back another shot of mezcal, duly considering her words. And then, it seemed as though the mere act of thinking became too much for him, and he turned to her, regarding her with glassy, bloodshot eyes, taking her in as though for the very first time. She was preparing to leave at least that was obvious to him.
"Buenas noches, Señora," he said with a wheezing burp, deciding after all it was more comfortable to stay right where he was, in the company of a bottle of drink, rather than the company of a beautiful woman who might expect him to perform.
Teresa wouldve closed her eyes in relief, had the smoky room not already been spinning so. She dared not risk it. "Buenas noches, Señor Ruiz." She bowed slightly and backed towards the doorway. "Y gracias." She moved as quickly as she could, hoping he wouldnt have a change of heart or of focus, but she neednt have been concerned. As she slipped away, she saw his eyes starting to droop, his head starting to dip and nod, oblivious to the party that continued to whirl around him. This was a scene that had played out many times before her, she was sure of that. And in the unlikely event that the Señor did regain his faculties, she could tell by the sidelong looks that had been shot his way all evening from the local girls, that the needs of the master of the house would be well attended to.
Gratefully, Teresa stepped out onto the wooden porch, breathing in deeply of the night air, trying to steady herself. Down the path she knew was the guest cottage where shed be spending the night; Ruiz had proudly deposited her in the largest one, while Lane and Manuel had been casually directed off towards smaller structures closer to the perimeter of the compound. God, she wanted nothing more than to sleep it off, to forget that this whole dirty night had ever happened. Cautiously, deliberately, she placed one foot in front of the other and began to head towards the path that had seemed so much wider and smoother earlier in the twilight. Alone in the out-of-doors, with the cool mountain breeze gently ruffling her hair, she felt her anger towards Lane rapidly bleeding away. But there was no way she wanted to get into that shit with her now. Tomorrow would be soon enough for that.
See? She was making good progress almost there.
And unaware of the dark eyes in the night that tracked her journey.
Lane held the barely glowing butt of a cigarette to the tip of the fresh one dangling from her lips and pulled in a couple of rapid puffs, igniting her next smoke. Quickly, she ground out the expired butt under the tip of her shoe. It figured that Ruizs guard had tossed her a pack of matches with only a single match left. Well, she never was one for saving things for a rainy day, so her shortage of firepower had given her the excuse shed needed to chain-smoke her way through the third of a pack of smokes hed given her, the first time shed allowed herself such an extended indulgence since, well, since her life had been turned upside down. She knew Teresa didnt like her smoking, but dammit, she needed it. It was a bad habit, she knew, but hell, at least she wasnt doing smack or blow unlike some people who she could name.
If she cared to.
The agent inhaled deeply and held it, relishing for a moment the perverse comfort of a sort she always felt whenever she had a lungful of the noxious tar and nicotine smoke, and then she released the breath through her nose, examining the lit cigarette in her hand as though she might find the answer to all her problems there. She stubbed her foot again against the damp, gravely ground, although her previous butts had long been extinguished.
Shed been a prick tonight, and she knew it.
Maybe if she stayed out here long enough, she could get a freakin grip on herself, and gather enough wits about her to find the right words to go apologize. Shed already poured the remainder of the mezcal out onto the ground and tossed the empty bottle into the thick vegetation nearby, knowing the way the drink had already clouded her mind and her judgment this night. The only way things could get any worse- was if she pressed Teresa when she wasnt in the mood. And the look in her eyes when shed left the bathroom hell, after what she, Lane, had said, shed deserved it.
Maybe it would be better to wait until the morning, and start things off on the right foot.
If she still had a leg to stand on.
Teresa somehow found her way to the slatted door of her cottage and opened it, noting with some relief that one of Ruizs servants had left a lantern burning on a wooden table by the door. She was feeling shakier than ever now, the waning high of the cocaine crashing against the low of the booze, leaving her woozy and disoriented. She just wanted to go to sleep, and the oversized bed with the fluffy, pale blue and pink comforter looked awfully inviting.
She stepped closer to the bed, unbuttoning her blouse as she moved, kicking off her sandals one at a time. Focused only on her destination, she was almost too tired to pay any attention to the muffled sound behind her that wasnt the door, was it? Until her lantern flickered and went out.
Its gotta be the nicotine, Lane told herself as she paced back and forth at the edge of the compound, drawing on her next-to-last cigarette. Her head was actually starting to clear a bit, and she was thinking things through with a little more logic and sense, and less hair-trigger emotion. This wasnt just about her, and what her holier-than-thou sense of justice deemed was proper and correct. Shed known that Teresa would have a hard time of it, staying clean. The least she could do was be more supportive of her.
And yeah, men like Ruiz and Benitez needed to be put out of business, but the larger issue was doing the honorable thing by a man shed trusted and respected: her partner, Clarence. And to nail the bastard, David Starks, whod gotten him dead.
Lane raked a hand through her hair, her mind turning to the most innocent casualty in all of this, Mia León. A little girl whod never really gotten a shot at the kind of life she deserved. Well, Lane would see to it that she did. It was a promise shed made to Teresa one she intended to keep.
"Lane, is that you?" Teresas eyes squinted in the darkness. She could barely discern the shape of a large figure near the door. Lane. Well, she was still angry with her, a little bit, anyway, so the agent would simply have to leave. Anyway, it would never do for Ruizs people to know shed been in here. But still maybe shed let her stay and apologize for perhaps an hour or two, and then shed absolutely, positively have to leave.
The figure wordlessly moved closer.
"I knew you wouldnt be able to stay away," she began triumphantly, and then, letting herself feel some relief at the fact that Lane had sought her out despite the harsh words that had passed between them, added more softly, "Im glad you didnt."
The figure drew closer still, stepping heavily, and it was then that Teresa could hear the harsh breathing. And the smell so unlike Lanes distinctive scent. She clutched her blouse to her chest, feeling suddenly off balance uncertain. "Lane?" she blinked rapidly, trying to make sense of the shape, unconsciously backing away, until she felt the edge of the bed thump behind her legs.
And then a pair of rough hands were on her shoulders, squeezing them, and a coarse voice sounded in her ear, with breath that stunk of mezcal and pulque. "Hola, Señora. Tonight I take what by rights belongs to me."
Teresa wasnt sure whether she wanted to cry out or throw up.
"Teresa, I know Ive been a jackass"
"No." Lane took another hit from her cigarette, pacing. "Try it again," she muttered to herself. "You dont want her to slam the door in your face."
She nervously cleared her throat.
"Teresa I love you. I cant live without you, you know that, right? Can you forgive me?"
Lane glanced back up the path towards where she knew Teresas guest cottage was. She couldnt see it from her current position, but she could just make out, or so she imagined, a dim light through the trees. Shed never get any sleep at all tonight, if she didnt at least apologize.
The faint light suddenly winked out.
Great. Lane shook her head, disgusted. Shes gone to sleep.
Maybe she should have been scared, and maybe she should have tried to talk her way out of it, but instead, after a moments hesitation, Teresas anger kicked in.
Anger at Enrico, for having chosen such a toady of a right-hand-man to begin with.
Anger at herself, for having kept him on long after the time when she knew she should have gotten rid of him.
And anger at Manuel, most of all, for forgetting his position in life. For it was she, Teresa León, who was the head of the Mazatlán cartel, as her husband had been before her. Manuel Diaz was simply an employee, and a troublesome one, at that.
"You bolo!" she bit off, shoving him away. "Drunk! Get the hell out of here."
"Im not good enough for you, eh? Its that bitch gringa you want I see it all I know." He grabbed at her. "I show you the difference, now. What a real man can do."
"I said get out!" She tried to wrench herself away from him, but she was too slow, and the damn bed was in the way, blocking her in.
She could just make out the dark glimmer of his eyes, and her breath caught at the barely repressed rage she saw smoldering in them. "No, you little puta. You you come to our country, you take Enrico from us, you take his money, you live in his house," he seized her wrists in a grip of iron, "well now I do the taking. I take his house and his money," he rasped, pushing her towards the bed, "and his woman."
"You could never be the man Enrico was," Teresa taunted him, unable to stop the words that rushed to her lips. "He used to laugh at you, laugh at Manuel the baboso, behind your back. Fool."
In the dark, she never saw it coming.
The blood suddenly flooded her mouth, and the force of the blow took her legs out from under her. She landed on the bed and Manuel followed her down, ripping her blouse from her grasp. His weight fell top of her, pinning her, and his hand roughly covered her mouth. If shed ever considered calling for help before, it was not an option now.
Dont fight it, she numbly told herself, as with a fatalistic sense of resignation, she understood that this would not be the first time a man had forced himself on her. Let the pig do it, and in the morning, she would kill him. Or, maybe, Lane would do it for her.
"Everything Enrico had will be mine," Manuel panted. "He promised me." He kept one hand on her mouth while his lips found a breast, and the weak suckling turned quickly painful as teeth cruelly bit down an attempt to devour her.
It was easier to turn her mind off to what was happening than to still her body; logically, she knew it was hopeless, but she kept fighting him, squirming, kicking, biting back at his hand. God, she could barely breathe, what with the pressure of him and the blood pooling in the back of her throat, choking her.
Hell, maybe smothering was preferable anyway to inhaling the sour rankness of his drunken breath.
"He promise ." Manuel continued to chant, a heavy knee pushing apart her legs while with his free hand, he shoved up her skirt and began groping for her panties. She kicked at him again and got another slap to the side of her head for her efforts, but fortunately, the bastard was having as much problem gaining leverage as she was.
"No!" Manuel growled at her. "You dont mess things up. Not this time. You and that bitch had to stick your noses in where they dont belong." Violently, he tore her panties away. "He promise Señor Benitez. He knows what I can deliver to him."
Teresa could scarcely believe her ears. Maybe it was the blows to her head or maybe it was what Manuel had just drunkenly revealed, but either way, she felt herself sliding into shock.
"Me the man, now," Manuel swore, pressing on. "Me the one in charge now."
He mustve mistaken her stillness for compliance, or perhaps he simply needed a second hand free, but he removed his fist from her mouth.
"Benitez?" she rasped, feeling her stomach lurch as the pieces began to fall into place.
"Si." Manuel sneered. "He promise me. Im in charge. I take Enricos wife," he kept slurring his mantra, " and kill her puta. I live in his house." A pause, as he fumbled for the zipper of his trousers. "And I get rid of his brat."
He hadnt hit her again, but tiny spots of light danced before her eyes, and she shivered as an icy cold bolt of terror stabbed at her, gutting her. She gasped aloud, and Manuel smirked at her, so proud of his ingenuity and resourcefulness. "The mountains talk, Señora. Did you think no one would ever know?" Beads of sweat poured off of him and onto her skin, chilling her. "A man like me," he grunted, pulling her closer to him, "I make it my business to know these things."
She could feel the hardness of him repulsively pressing against her, demanding entry.
"Does Benitez know?" Her voice seemed a far-away whisper.
Manuel groaned as he forced his way into her, the weight of him so crushing; driving the breath from her body raping her, killing her, killing her soul, because nothing mattered anymore, nothing.
A curse, and Manuel was grabbing at his trousers again, trying to push them clear.
"Does Benitez know?" she raggedly struggled for a breath, her eyes glassy and cold no tears.
Her hands followed Manuels to his pants.
"Does he?" Groping, searching for his belt. Christ he was enjoying it! Did he think she was trying to help him? The fucking bastard. Damn him. Damn him to hell. As for herself she was already there.
And then, with an agonized cry, her hand seized upon what she was looking for.
A cloud passed over the crescent moon, a puff of silvered cotton softness, drifting across the indigo sky.
Lane Sinclair was considering going in search of another couple of cigarettes, and a lighter, this time. Maybe Teresa had gone to sleep, but hell, she herself was wide awake now. More smokes sounded good.
Or, maybe she should just skip the cigarettes and make her way back to her own cottage, and try to willfully force sleep to pay her a visit.
Or, maybe she could forget about any more damn cigarettes. And and maybe she could still swing by Teresas cottage. Maybe she wasnt asleep yet, after all. Or maybe she was asleep, but if Lane woke her up she wouldnt be pissed off, and they would be able to talk, and tell each other how sorry they were, and how theyd never let anything like this come between them again. And how admit it, Sinclair. A wry smile shaped her lips. You love her so much you never want to let her out of your sight again. Ever.
Her mind made up, she stubbed out her last cigarette, and started back up the path towards the cottages.
And then she heard it.
There was no mistaking it, shed heard such sounds before often enough in her life: the muffled pop-pop of a gun firing. She broke into a shambling run that gradually picked up a desperate speed. Her sharp ears sickeningly told her what she feared what she knew; that the sound hadnt come from the party at the hacienda, or from some yahoos in the hills shooting off.
She raced towards the darkness through the trees.
To be continued.
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To Be Continued
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