The cold fruit shake numbed the tips of Mari Salazar’s fingers. She moved the plastic cup to her other hand when someone bumped her arm, and mumbled “Perdoname.” Mari looked in the direction of the culprit, but instead of focusing on the offender, she became instantly distracted by another man walking nearby. Chills skittered down her arms.
The crowds had begun to swell at La Boqueria in Barcelona but she had a direct line of sight to him. Though early in the morning, the popular market was already lively, as the delightful aroma of fresh cut flowers conflicted with the smell of seafood. Mari stood motionless recognizing she had seen the same man handcuffed at the Capital City, Montana police station. Tony, her brother who was the arresting detective, told her this man be in jail a long time. So why was he here, in Spain, seven weeks later? The man began moving in the direction of the exit. She shoved four Euros to the attendant, not bothering to wait for the change.
Maybe it was someone else. Maybe she was wrong. She checked her watch. It was the middle of the night back home. No reason to wake her brother and worry him. She could get a few pictures and e-mail them to him at a more appropriate time. Grabbing the camera that hung from her neck, she followed the man, snapping pictures at random. The person she saw in Montana was dangerous, at least that’s what Tony told her. She’d have to be discrete. The adrenaline rush sped her heart to sprint along with an uneasy nervousness. She tried to control the fine tremor that affected her fine finger movements.
Thankfully he looked preoccupied with his cell phone conversation. He stopped, turning sideways as he tried to block his ear from the noise of the crowded market. The coffee he held in his other hand made it difficult. He began looking around as though he was trying to find something. In an effort to be furtive, Mari turned her back to him, snapping pictures of the colorful fruit and vegetable stands that filled the large building.
Using her camera as a shield to hide her face, she turned in his direction just as he threw the disposable cup in a nearby garbage. She lowered the camera, zoomed in and looked at the picture. It was him. She was positive. These same dark eyes that penetrated through at her as if they could see her soul, now peered out of the small digital screen. She remembered his smooth, rich voice.
Seven weeks ago, Mari had been waiting for her brother in his office at the police station. Tony and several others walked in the room, moving in her direction. She stood up, moved to the door, poised to wave, but held back when she saw brother’s fingers were wrapped tightly around a prisoner’s arm. Tony abruptly stopped and turned back to speak with a woman who had “ATF” emblazoned on her dark jacket. The movement thrust the criminal between Mari and her brother.
The man was taller than Tony, and though thinner, he appeared rock solid. Looking Mari up and down, a half grin lifted from one side of his mouth. The glisten in his dark eyes made her feel naked. Her stomach flipped. He held her gaze, and then spoke. “Hola Chica,” he said, his voice a warm, deep timbre that sent heat up her cheeks. His long dark hair, wrapped in a doo rag, along with his deep tanned skin, made him look like a pirate. A sexy pirate.
“Shut up.” Tony had yanked the man away from Mari and released him to the ATF agent, who then whisked him down the hall. Like a spell broken Mari’s attention flew back to Tony. She sucked in a deep breath and the room suddenly felt cold. Tony had motioned her into his office.
“Who is he?” She asked as they sat in two chairs on one side of his cluttered desk.
“Forget that idiot.” Tony smiled and patted her leg, “Tomorrow you’ll be in Spain, and I’ll still be here doing paperwork on him and his buddies making sure they remain guests of the US penal system for a very, very long time.” He nodded his chin toward the outer office. Several other men in handcuffs were being led through the room.
So why was Black Eyes here, in Spain, walking around as though nothing happened?
His pace picked up, as did his rapid fire Spanish. She had closed the gap between them enough to be able to hear a different pronunciation than her Cuban Spanish. The dialect difference, combined with the noisy market made it difficult to understand his side of the conversation. Something is changing, was all she could understand. Her cup followed his into the garbage as she walked past it.
Black Eyes exited on to La Rambla, the bustling popular street, always crowded with locals and tourists alike. The cooler fresh air washed over her, a relief from the over whelming smells that inundated the enclosed market. He turned opposite the Mirador de Colon, a large obelisk statue honoring Christopher Columbus. It stood in a roundabout at the end of La Rambla, a short distance from the waterway that led to the Mediterranean Sea.
His stride lengthened considerably after he dropped the cell phone in a front pocket of his shirt. His quick and stiff stride cleared a path as people moved around him. Mari noticed the gap between them widening again. She instinctively let the camera drop to her side, knowing the shoulder strap would hold it. Tony’s predictions that this man would be doing time for a long time along with ATF’s involvement meant the feds were involved in chasing a drug or gun case. Seven weeks was not long enough for a case of this sort to have been resolved.
The busy street helped her avoid being noticed, but he soon turned down a side street and moved quickly into Ciutat Vella, the old quarters of Barcelona. Here, the streets, most as wide as alleys, contained less pedestrians, and hardly any motorized vehicles except for the occasional scooter. Mari had danced her way into the recessed doorways whenever he looked back over his shoulder.
He crossed a small plaza, turned into an even narrower alley while Mari scooted past. She was able to ascertain which door he entered, back tracked, and followed to the door of the damp, darkened alley. She stopped at the door the mystery man had disappeared into.
She hesitated, unsure what she’d find on the other side. Old filmy glass let her peer in, she didn’t see anyone. She held the antique knob, and turned it. Her stomach churned with excess acid. Mostly, she wanted to run.
Blood pulsed in her ears knowing she shouldn’t be involved. But the last time she ignored someone’s criminal acts, she had almost gone to prison. This time she would at least let the authorities know. It didn’t take someone with a PhD to figure out what she was doing was stupid and dangerous, but compared with the damage that could happen, she’d take her chances.
The squeaks of the old knob grasped in Mari’s hand brought her back to the present. She slipped into the dim hallway. Sweat dripped under her backpack as she pressed her camera close to her side and listened. Her breathing echoed in the dark quiet space. She opened her mouth, forcing herself to take slow, quiet deep breaths. It helped, her pounding heart slowed and her muscles relaxed. A little.
She heard distant muffled voices, their tones loud, perhaps angry or excited. She wasn’t close enough to make it out. Keeping her movements purposeful and calm, careful not to knock over any of the stacked boxes that lined the narrow hall, she stepped closer to the voices.
The sounds came from a room further ahead. She reached a door and tried to listen, still too far. She peaked through the port like windows, through which she could see an empty professional kitchen. A light peered from another door across the kitchen. She inched the door open, pausing between each move, hoping the ancient hinges wouldn’t squeak.
Stepping closer to the sound, she swallowed, and tried to psyche her fear up a notch towards brave. The voices were speaking in Spanish.
“Listen you Portuguese son-of-a-bitch,” someone barked. “That isn’t the deal we made. All of the guns, now or the deal is off.” She recognized the caramel tone, though now it was angry and rough.
Someone spoke, quieter. “I cannot get them all. The guns and body armor yes, but the MANPADS will take another week. Ground to air missiles are a little harder to transport.” This one sounded gravelly, like a smoker.
“The buyer wants them now. If you can’t get them to me, I’ll go elsewhere.” The rich, quiet voice said just barely loud enough for Mari to make it out was Black Eyes speaking.
Her senses went blank. She tried to think, to focus on all she heard. The words began to make sense. She had stumbled on a gun buy. Bile rose in her throat. Nausea rolled through her stomach. She turned to run and hit a metal cart. She grabbed it but realized too late it was on wheels. The cart rolled and Mari tumbled forward, holding on to nearby sink just as the moving cart slammed into the stove. The metal pans stacked on the cart fell off, crashing on the tiled floor and sending deafening clangs bouncing off the walls.
A bright light pained Mari’s eyes as she pushed herself upright. Panic gripped her as the room began to spin. A hand grabbed her arm, steadying her. A set of big black eyes coming into focus as the faintness subsided. “Hola Chica.” The man she had first seen in Montana offered her a wicked grin. Metal clicking distracted her. She peeked her head around his shoulders, five other men, guns drawn faced her. “Put your guns down.” The mysterious man’s eyes remained fixed on her while he moved his hand, palm out to the men around them.
Mari pulled back, sucking in air trying to steady herself. She placed her hand behind her, again using the cold metal sink for support.
“What the fuck is this?” A thin man with greasy slicked back hair, slicked stepped up to Mari, she felt the cold steel through her blouse when he pushed his cold metal gun into her side. She recognized the gravelly voice.
“If you don’t put that gun down, I will shoot you myself.” Black eyes spoke, eerily calm.
“Is she a cop?” Another man asked.
The man holding her, stepped aside, but kept focused on Mari. She swallowed down the acid that had refluxed up her esophagus. “Answer the man.”
Mari couldn’t understand what he had asked her. She looked back and forth between the men. Death seemed like a possibility. She felt tremulous and cold.
“Are you a cop?” Black Eyes asked in English, tightening his grip on her arm just a bit. He sounded agitated.
Her mouth was so dry she could barely speak, “No, I’m a tourist. I’m an amateur photographer taking pictures of the city.” Her words came out in a jittery whisper.
Black eyes grabbed her camera. He flashed through the first few photos, and smiled. When he got to the one of the sun rising over the Barcelona Harbor, he held it out for the others. “See a tourist.” He opened the bottom, pulled the camera card out, and placed it in his shirt pocket. He handed the camera to someone she couldn’t see, speaking to him in Spanish. Mari who was fluent, understood the conversation. She kept quiet.
Black Eyes tipped his head to a younger man, “Take her downstairs while we figure out what to do.” He shoved her towards the younger man.
Greasy hair blocked her way, “I’ll take her.” He stared at Black Eyes.
“Do we get her when you’re done boss?” Said a man standing next to Greasy hair, looking just as dirty. His whiney laugh revealed brown rotten teeth. She shuddered at the thought of being near either of the two men.
Nausea turned into dry heaves as Mari flung herself around and back over the sink. Black eyes put his arm around her waist, holding her up. There was nothing in her stomach. The sensation quickly passed, but the cold chill that ran through her was unavoidable.
His arm still tightly wrapped around her, the man reached for some folded towels and ran one under the water. Letting go of her, he wrung the wet cloth and handed it to her. She wiped her face, and mumbled a quiet, “Thank you,” and dropped the towel back in the sink.
Taking her arm, he pulled her away from the group. “All of you stay here. Come with me.” The last comment was again directed to the younger man. He led her to the door she had previously entered, ignoring the facial expressions of the man he spoke to, followed them into the damp hallway. To Mari’s surprise, the sticky moist air felt good.
“Do you have the kit with you?” His now subdued whispers reached her ears.
“It’s upstairs. Why, what are you thinking?” A puzzled look washed across the younger man’s face.
“We need to get her away from Lito and do it before the restaurant staff comes in. I can use the employees arriving as an excuse not to do something now, but we need to act quickly.”
“I have some Ativan to knock her out.” She heard footsteps moving away at a quick pace.
“Calmate Chica,” he murmured near her ear. “It will be fine.”
Mari suspected it wouldn’t be fine, but maybe this man would kill her before one of the others came close to hurting her.
“We’ll sedate her, and I’ll take care of the situation later. The staff will be arriving. We don’t have much wiggle room to change course.”
The young man disappeared, but promptly returned, breathless as though he had just sprinted a four hundred meter race.
“Give it to her,” said Black Eyes holding her up.
They all turned when the door opened exposing the greasy haired man.
“I’ll take her with me and we can finish her off.” The greasy man’s putrid breath permeated the stagnant air, plunging Mari back into a billowing surge of nausea. She swallowed the pool of saliva in her mouth, she could feel perspiration bathe her shivering muscles.
“No. You will not take her. I will take care of it later. The workers are all due in and we can’t risk any of them seeing something.” He must have felt her legs begin to give out. Promptly reacting by pulling her tighter.
Someone grabbed her arm and she swung her head to look at the younger man. He held her arm up, moved his body to block the view of the man with the greasy hair, smiled and winked. She felt a prick, and gasped. He pulled the needle out of her arm and Black eyes swept her off her feet. Literally. He had reached down and put an arm under her legs, forcing her to quickly throw her arm around his neck just as the room began to spin. Mari’s world went black and silent.