Welcome to Serial Saturday! A couple of Saturdays ago, I decided to post the novella that started this insane e-publishing journey I now find myself on: Bad Spirits (Books 1-5). Yes, it is available for free almost everywhere, but I know some of us are just too damned busy to click on over and download stuff, so I thought I’d make it easy for everyone. And, it’s a two-fer, cuz it allows me to think I’m being productive. (I’m all about efficiency, you know, but I’m also very good at denial 🙂 ) If you missed last week’s installment, here’s the link to part II. If you’ve just shown up, have a seat, find a snack, and click here for part I.
Bad Spirits Part III – A Rock and a Hard Place
Frank’s guy dropped his gun and fell to the ground, groaning and clutching his knee.
I moved to the front of the cellar, next to the ladder under the door, body humming with tension.
“You’re not going to make it, Kate.” Frank’s voice sounded like he was near the house. “I guarantee I’ve got more bullets than you do. And a hell of a lot more time.”
I leaned back and pounded my head against the cold dirt wall.
“I don’t have the money, Frank,” I yelled back. I searched the darkness at the rear of the cellar to make sure the pack couldn’t be seen from the doorway.
“Well, then we have a problem, don’t we? Tell you what–” Frank paused.
I waited, but he didn’t say anything. Then, “You tell me where the money is and I’ll let the old guy live.”
He sounded closer. Frank was using the conversation as a diversion so he could move in on my little hideaway. I turned and aimed the gun at the doorway, perspiration running down my back despite the chill of the cellar.
The ragged breathing from Frank’s guy made me want to scream at him to shut the hell up. I was tempted to pull a Jack Bauer and climb out of the cellar shooting for all I was worth. But this wasn’t a television show and that would get me killed. My mind raced for an alternative to winding up dead. At least Oggie had survived.
Unless Frank was lying.
“Come on out, Kate. It’s over.”
He was right on top of me, near the door. The bastard was smart. He stayed out of my line of sight so I didn’t have a clear shot.
If I stayed below, he’d wait me out and eventually I’d either fall asleep or die of thirst. If I surrendered, he could kill me, which didn’t seem likely since I knew where the money was. No, he’d torture me until I told him where I’d stashed it.
Then he’d kill me.
I could always try to wait them out, hope they fell asleep first. Maybe Frank’s guy would bleed out and then it would be a more equitable standoff.
Not many choices.
“You know, Frank. I’m kind of caught between a rock and a hard place.” I hoped that my voice so close to the door would make him show himself and I could get a shot off.
No such luck. He stayed where he was.
“See, giving myself up just doesn’t seem to be a healthy alternative, if you know what I mean.”
The sound of Frank’s chuckle sent chills up my spine.
“Well, Kate, you probably should have thought that one through before you took the money.”
I sighed. The gun weighed heavily in my hand.
“Tell you what, Kate. I’ll give you a break, for old time’s sake, all right? You throw out whatever firearms you have down in there and come out real peaceful-like, and after you tell me where the money is, when I do kill you I’ll make it quick.”
“Gee, Frank. You’re the man.”
I had no choice. Killing myself wasn’t an option. I’d figure out a way to escape before he killed me. I had to.
After I quieted the screaming in my head, I took a deep breath and tossed the gun through the door.
“You win, Frank. I’m coming out.” I climbed the ladder and crawled onto my hands and knees. Frank picked up my gun and aimed his 40 caliber at me. I stood, hands behind my head, and glanced at the man I shot. He’d removed his shirt and was using it as a tourniquet around his leg. He looked pale and clammy and was shaking like a wet dog.
“You should probably get your guy to a doctor, Frank. Looks like he’s going into shock.”
“Shut up.” Frank walked behind me and gave my arm a vicious twist. “You should be more worried about what I’m going to do to you.” He shoved me forward and marched me toward the house, leaving the other man on the ground.
I stumbled through the front door, Frank’s gun at my back. Oggie sat taped to a kitchen chair, his face a mess. Frank pushed me into another one along side of him. He grabbed a roll of duct tape from the table and proceeded to wrap it around my wrists and ankles, and then to the chair.
Oggie’s right eye had swollen shut. I gave him a look that I hoped said how sorry I was. He shrugged and shook his head. It broke my heart.
Frank dropped the roll of tape on the table and walked out the door without a word. I turned to Oggie.
“God, Oggie, I’m so sorry you had anything to do with this.”
One-half of his mouth twitched up in a grimace. The other side was too bruised. It gave him a macabre look with the streaks of blood down his face.
“My choice, Kate. Not yours.” Wild Bill meowed at him and rubbed against his leg. “Probably one of the worst ones I ever made, but it’s mine.”
I grew silent at the sound of crunching gravel. Frank walked back inside.
“I usually let Manny do the honors, but since you shot him, it’s up to me. Now,” he slid a chair over and sat down in front of me, leaning his arms on the back. “Are you going to tell me where the money is, or am I going to have to beat it out of you?”
“It’s gone, Frank. I just wired the last thousand to a friend when you found me at the bank.” If I could get them away from Oggie, maybe he’d forget about him. Let him live.
Frank sighed and shook his head. “Now I’m the one caught between a rock and a hard place, Kate, darlin’. If I don’t bring the money back, my ass is in a sling. I already searched the house and that rat-infested cellar. It ain’t here. Your old buddy here didn’t know anything about it, either. Didja, killer?” He reached over and ruffled Oggie’s hair. Oggie jerked his head away.
“I can’t kill you until I get my hands on that money, so I think we’re at what you call an impasse.” He rose from his chair and moved it out of the way. Then he stepped closer and punched me, hard, in the stomach.
I hinged forward, gasping. Good thing I hadn’t eaten recently.
“Stop!” Oggie strained against the duct tape.
“Why? Are you going to tell me where the money is? Hmm. Didn’t think so.” Frank cracked his knuckles and turned to me. “Salazar said not to mess you up too badly. I won’t leave any marks.”
So I’d be a blemish-free corpse? I sucked in a breath and sat up. Little spots appeared before my eyes.
“What do you mean, Salazar? I thought you worked for Anaya?” I wheezed.
“I do.” He grinned and leaned over, next to my ear. The thick, oily scent of Aqua Velva drifted toward me. My gag reflex was working overtime.
“You stole Anaya’s money.” His hot breath skated across my cheek. Icy dread reached deep into my gut and twisted.
“What do you mean? The money was in Salazar’s van, at Salazar’s house.”
“Yeah. Well, that van was on its way to Anaya’s camp in the mountains. It was Salazar’s payment to Anaya for a shipment.” Frank shook his head. “You really fucked up, Kate. Not only did you steal from Salazar, but in reality, you actually ended up stealing from both of them.”
The import of what he said hit me like another blow to the stomach. I was a dead woman. Vincent Anaya wasn’t known for his temperate ways. With Salazar, I might have had a slim chance of staying alive. He loved me, once. Didn’t he?
A cold-blooded bastard, Anaya’s reputation had risen to mythic proportions in the Mexican and Central American drug running communities. No one messed with Anaya. Not unless they had a death wish. Or were incredibly stupid.
Apparently, I fell into the latter category.
Frank pulled his gun from its holster and stepped next to Oggie. He rammed the barrel against his temple. Oggie closed his eyes.
“Where’s the money?”
“I told you, I–” He pulled the trigger and I screamed.
I stared at his hand. The gun hadn’t fired.
Frank chuckled as he raised the gun, as if to inspect it. “Hmm. Must not have had a bullet in there. Fancy that.” He pulled the slide, chambering a bullet, and held it back against Oggie’s head.
“Don’t give him the satisfaction, Kate.” Oggie practically spat the words out.
Frank sighed and rolled his eyes. “Where’s the money?”
“I told you, I don’t have it anymore.” My voice shook.
“Not the answer I’m looking for.”
“Wait–” A sob escaped me. I squeezed my eyes shut. I had to tell him.
But then Frank would kill us both.
Out of nowhere the theme from the 1960s television show Hawaii 5-0 filled the small house.
“Shit,” Frank swore under his breath. He pulled his gun away from Oggie’s head, reached into his front pocket and took out his cell phone.
“Lanzarotti,” he said, as he turned and walked away.
I tried deep breathing to calm myself, but the adrenaline proved too much to conquer. Oggie had his eyes closed. His thin chest rose and fell with his breath. Frank stopped talking and walked back to where we sat, holstering his gun.
“Seriously. Hawaii 5-0, Frank?”
“Why not? At one time I was quite the surfer. Nobody rode the tube like I did.”
My shock must have shown. A strangely defensive expression crossed his face.
“Hey, I was a teenager once.”
“Were you an asshole then too, or did you grow into it?”
“Fuck you.” He produced a switch blade and stepped behind me. I winced, waiting for the pain. It never came. He cut my hands free, then bent down to do the same to my ankles.
“Hands in front,” he barked.
I did as I was told. He wrapped duct tape around my wrists, and yanked me to my feet.
“What are you doing?”
“Time to go,” he said in a clipped tone.
He didn’t answer.
Frank parked the SUV in the expansive front drive, under the portico. Salazar’s hacienda-style mansion hadn’t changed in the short time I’d been gone.
But I had.
I’d known where we were headed as soon as Frank turned onto the familiar highway. The hammering in my chest made it hard to breathe.
Once Frank had secured me in the front seat of the SUV at Oggie’s, he’d gone back inside the house. A single gunshot shattered the quiet. I hung my head in despair. The old man was right. Bad spirits surrounded me. I hoped Wild Bill would be all right.
Frank had laid Manny on his good side in the backseat. He’d slipped in and out of consciousness during the long drive. As soon as we arrived, two of Salazar’s armed guards hustled out and carried him inside.
Frank came around to my side of the truck, threw open the passenger door and yanked me onto my feet. He dragged me up the tile steps to the huge copper doors leading into the courtyard. The beauty of the setting didn’t register. I was Salazar’s prisoner.
Frank shoved me through the door into the cool interior. Salazar’s imported Italian gravel crunched under my feet. I used to love coming home to the splashing fountain in the beautiful courtyard. Now it grated on my nerves. The cheerful yellow walls and lush hanging plants had been my idea. How could something that once seemed so good turn so bad?
That’s the last time I fall for the head of a drug cartel, I thought. Oddly, the gallows humor made me smile.
I was sick, sick, sick.
“Bring her here.”
I looked up to see Salazar standing on the second floor balcony. His dark hair framed his tanned, handsome face, and I reluctantly remembered why I’d fallen for the bastard. Conflicting emotions fought their way to the surface. Revulsion, attraction, fear. I checked, but found no trace of tenderness. There might be hope for me yet.
“Move it,” Frank muttered. He grabbed my elbow and pulled me toward the stairway.
My legs wouldn’t budge. I’d seen Salazar’s men take others up these stairs against their will, and my body froze. I was now one of them.
Frank half-dragged, half-carried me up the steps. We reached the second floor. I dug in my heels and dropped to the floor. Frank wheeled around, his face twisted in anger.
“Get up.” He reached for his gun.
“I’m not going in there, Frank. People don’t come back out.” I shook my head and squeezed my eyes shut to stop the tears. Salazar would view crying as a weakness, and he despised weakness.
“Let her go.” Salazar stood at the end of the long hallway, smoking a cigarette. His eyes held the same flint-like coldness as when I saw him slit the throat of his friend. It seemed like such a long time ago, although I’d been gone only days. I tried to say something to him, but my mouth had run dry.
Frank released me and I struggled to my feet. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hands and stood tall. Damned if I’d be on my knees when he killed me.
Salazar walked slowly to where I stood. He ran his hand under my jacket, caressing my breast, and smiled. I shivered, though not from desire. I thought my head would explode from the searing hatred that coursed through my body. I fought to keep my expression neutral.
Salazar made a tsking sound as he circled me like a wolf with its prey.
“You disappoint me, mi corazón.” He leaned against the balcony railing, and shook his head. “I give you all this–” He spread his arms wide. “–and you repay me with betrayal. Not only that, but you have betrayed Vincent Anaya, and at the same time trampled my name in the dust.” He stared into the distance. His jaw flexed.
I didn’t say anything. He would not let me speak unless and until he gave his permission. I’d seen a similar game with those below him in the pecking order, although it was different with me. Not only had I betrayed him, but in his world, a woman would never leave him. His enemies would view this as a crack in his control of the organization.
Frank stood by at a discreet distance, hands clasped in front of him. The perfect soldier, I thought. Just in case the crazy American woman did something stupid, like hurl herself off the balcony into the courtyard below.
I had to admit, it occurred to me. If I could have guaranteed myself no broken bones, I’d have launched myself over the railing as soon as Frank let me go.
Salazar turned to Frank and muttered something about whether he had recovered the money, to which Frank replied that he hadn’t. Salazar gave him a dark look. “Anaya’s waiting by the pool. I will be there shortly.” Frank nodded and left. To me he said, “Walk with me.”
Salazar’s voice was deceptively gentle. I mirrored his slow, deliberate steps down the long corridor.
“You know I have to make an example of you, yes?” He glanced at me, as if to gauge my reaction.
“Actually, Roberto, you could prove your great strength by letting me go free. Only the most confident of men would let his woman go in peace, with no need for revenge.” It took a tremendous amount of effort to keep my voice steady.
Salazar erupted into laughter. Not the reaction I’d hoped for.
He wiped his eyes and draped his arm around my shoulders. “I have missed your unique way of thinking. It’s so refreshing.”
We stopped next to a closed, wooden door. He pushed it open and we entered the room. I tried to calm the voices inside my head, urging me to turn and run. I knew if I tried anything, things would turn out far worse.
The smell of fresh paint still permeated the air, and the tile floor looked like it had recently been scrubbed. The desk and chair in the corner belied the room’s true function.
There were no windows. Illumination came from a bank of track lighting along the ceiling. On the wall opposite the door hung various lengths of chain with leather cuffs attached to the ends. These chains were connected to a pulley that dropped from the ceiling. My former bodyguard, Eduardo, sat at a large console with rows of buttons in the middle of the room.
Eduardo stared straight ahead, avoiding my eyes. At the end, he’d been the one shining example of humanity in this madhouse of ego and greed. He always excused himself from Salazar’s “meetings” and I’d never seen him raise a hand to anyone. If I ever needed a person to talk to, he was always there to listen.
And, he taught me to shoot.
He’d been the one who showed me how to handle every kind of weapon Salazar possessed, including a machete. The other guards called me mujer Americana loca because of my dedication to target practice. I liked being referred to as crazy. People left me alone.
I cherished my time with Eduardo.
The fact that Salazar chose him to perform whatever torture he’d devised for me spoke volumes. But of course, he would blame Eduardo for my escape. He was my bodyguard. He’d been assigned not only to protect me, but to watch me, too.
“Eduardo has been given the task to find out where you hid the money.” Salazar walked to the wall of chains and lifted one, inspecting the cuff. “He has my permission to use any means necessary to extract your confession.” He stared hard at Eduardo, then at me. “Any means. Although, I have ordered him to keep you alive. For now.”
“I don’t have the–”
“Silence!” Salazar’s expression held a sharp warning. I swallowed my words.
As Salazar walked out, he paused for a moment to whisper something in Eduardo’s ear, then moved past me and closed the door with unnerving finality. The room started to spin and I placed my hands against the wall to steady myself. I wondered briefly what would happen if I fainted.
Eduardo rose immediately and came to my side. He guided me to a chair and lowered me into it. Old habits, I thought. I leaned back and watched the only person I’d thought of as a friend during my time here. I’d been wrong about that, too.
He held his finger to his lips, a warning in his eyes. Silently, he slipped over to listen at the door. After a few moments he came back and squatted in front of me.
“You know that Salazar or one of his guards is outside that door, listening for your screams,” he whispered. I nodded, unsure what he was getting at.
“We have to make this look real, like you’ve been tortured in the extreme, or Salazar will replace me with someone who is not sympathetic to you. ¿Tu comprendes?” Again, I nodded that I understood.
“I will have to use some electricity to shock you.” He glanced at the console in the middle of the room. “I can make it so that you only feel a light jolt, but you must moan and carry on as if it’s the most excruciating thing you’ve ever experienced.” A vein throbbed in his neck. “But first you have to tell me what you did with the money.”
My body tensed. So that’s the way we were going to play it. Good bodyguard, pretending to be bad, but getting the information all the same. If I broke down and told Eduardo where I hid the money, there would be no reason to keep me alive. If I didn’t tell him, I’d be alive, at least for a little while. Only then Salazar would replace Eduardo with some sadistic creep who’d be happy to draw out the pain.
Eduardo reached over and took my taped hands in his, looking deeply into my eyes.
“I am not going to let them kill you, if I can help it. You must trust me.”
An idea began to formulate in my brain. Why hadn’t I thought of it before?
In a low voice I said, “Frank stole the money.”
Eduardo looked surprised for a moment, then a slight smile played at the edges of his mouth. “You’re lying.”
“What do you mean? He took the money.”
Eduardo shook his head. “Your eyes move to the right when you lie. Remember that when Salazar questions you.” He thought for a minute. “They’ll confront Frank. They have to. Salazar and Anaya are already paranoid about each other. If you cast doubt on Frank, it will buy us time.”
I didn’t know why Eduardo thought more time would help my situation, but I would work with whatever he decided. At the moment, he was my only chance.
“We need to begin. Someone will come in to see why I haven’t started yet.”
Eduardo led me to the wall of chains. He cut through the duct tape that bound my wrists and then slid a cuff over each one, securing them. Little wires sprouted from each cuff, attached to a larger wire that had been threaded through the chain attached to the ceiling. The rest of the wiring ran to the console. He walked back to the controls and flicked a switch. The chain started to clank its way through the pulley, and as the slack decreased, it lifted my arms over my head, stretching me so that my toes barely touched the floor.
The first shock came as a complete surprise. I didn’t have to pretend to scream. My muscles contracted and I jerked like a fish on a line. I glared at Eduardo.
“Where’s the money?”
“I told you, Frank stole it.” My voice came out shaky at first, but grew stronger.
Another shock racked my body, this time less intense, but still nothing I wanted to repeat. It reminded me of the time I’d accidentally grabbed onto an electric fence on a friend’s farm. I screamed, hoping it matched what others had done before me. By the look on Eduardo’s face, I was convincing.
“Where’s the money?” Eduardo raised his voice.
“Frank has it,” I said, through clenched teeth.
The shocks continued before finally he signaled to me that I needed to ratchet up the screams. The next bolt of electricity shot through me. My fingers curled in on themselves as my body contracted with the current. I broke out in a cold sweat as I threw my head back and screamed.
“Where’s the money, Kate?” Eduardo’s voice echoed off the walls of the small room.
“I– told you.” The words came out in a ragged gasp. “Frank.”
Eduardo nodded and rose from his chair. I heard the door slam as he walked out. My arms had no feeling left in them. My shoulders throbbed as though they’d been dislocated from their sockets. I hung my head, too weak to look up. I realized he had to do what he did, and shuddered to think what the real thing would be like.
Eduardo returned a few minutes later. Or maybe it had been a few hours. I’d drifted.
“Look at me.” A hand grabbed my chin and yanked my head up. I opened my eyes and stared into Salazar’s face. The anger in his eyes would have made me weak in the knees, if I wasn’t there already.
“You told Eduardo that Frank stole the money?”
He dropped my chin and began to pace.
“Anaya will never believe it,” Salazar muttered.
“Of course not.” Eduardo replied. “Don’t you see? It’s the perfect alibi. Why take her word against his?”
“Yes, yes, I see. But we can’t accuse him in front of Anaya. He would kill us both for the insult, even if it is true.” He stopped pacing. “You’re sure she’s telling the truth?”
“She didn’t change her story, even when I gave her the highest voltage I could without killing her.”
Salazar’s breathing was the only sound in the room.
“Take her down.”
I struggled out of the dim fog that shrouded my brain. They’d left me lying on a bed in a dark room with the shades drawn. Disoriented, I sat up and slid backward on the mattress until the headboard stopped me.
Something thudded against the door. I froze, holding my breath as I strained to hear.
With difficulty, I rose from the bed and groped my way to the door. I thought I heard movement in the hallway. I tried the light switch, but nothing happened.
I slid my hand along the wall, and backed away from the door. First a chair, then a dresser impeded my progress. Neither of them held anything I could use as a weapon. There wasn’t even a telephone.
The sound of a key being inserted into the lock had the same effect on me as an electric shock; both my muscles and my breathing stopped. I recovered and backed against the wall, wanting desperately to hide, knowing I didn’t have a chance. I slid to the floor and curled into a ball.
The door opened, followed by the thud of more than one set of footsteps. Several hands grabbed my arms and hauled me to my feet. A ripping sound preceded a piece of tape slapped over my mouth. I couldn’t get a good look at anyone, even with the light from the hallway. Each of them wore dark clothing and a ski mask.
Then someone yanked a hood over my head.
My executioners had arrived.