She turned to look at the red glow of her alarm clock. A stiffness in her neck slowed her movement, but it didn’t matter, the alarm clock wasn’t there. She reached for her cell phone, hoping to find some comfort in the instant illumination. Instead, her arm slammed onto a hard cold surface. She tried to focus on where she was but her mind was clouded.
She pressed her hands against the floor to sit up, only to be forced back down as a wave of vertigo rolled through her head. Closing her eyelids, she inhaled with a dim hope of reviving her senses. The acrid stench of dank air assaulted her nostrils forcing her to cover mouth with her hand. The smell reminded her of an old building and rancid grease. Scattered scenes sprinkled her memory as she began piecing it all together.
She rolled her head to the side trying to stretch the stiffness out of her neck. The grogginess was beginning to wear off. A vague image of entering the restaurant formed in her mind. She remembered the men, talk about guns, and being found in the kitchen.
The fogginess was about gone, but her headache still lingered. “Crap,” she mumbled, rubbing her fingers against her hammering forehead. She heard a shuffle and darted her eyes around. She was still unable to see anything in the dark. A dim light popped on across the room. Leaning sideways against the wall, arms and legs crossed, stood the mysterious man.
The knowledge that the despicable man had watched her while she’d been unconscious swept through her. Heat rose in her face and her fingernails scraped the cement floor as her hands clutched into tight fists. Bristling, Mari remained still waiting for him to speak.
“Habla espanol?” He paused.
She didn’t answer.
“Only English?” His eyebrows lifted.
Maybe they would let her leave if they believed she hadn’t understood the conversation. “Ye…Yes, I’m American. Why am I in this room?”
“That is an interesting question.” He frowned and uncrossed his legs, moving closer to her. Looming over her, his fixed gaze, as intense and cool as the floor she lay on, scrutinized her. “I would like to know what you were doing in my restaurant’s kitchen.” His low accented timbre, tightened her insides.
Panic filled her as she searched for an answer. “I was looking for a bathroom.” The quiver in her voice gave away her fear and she hoped it didn’t show her deceit. She rose to her knees and pushed herself up. Another wave of vertigo hit her. She lost her balance, toppling forward. Strong hands grabbed her and pulled her upright.
“Careful Chica. I’d take it easy for a couple more hours.” After helping her maintain her balance, he placed hand a behind her back. The touch of his hand seared her skin, a contrast the cool damp air of the basement. A mantilla of unease swept over her.
Uncertainty about Black Eye’s intentions put her on alert. She pushed back. “Let me go. I don’t know what you did to me but you can’t keep me here.”
“Chica, you can leave anytime you want. Just tell me why you are here, and who sent you.”
Mari blinked. “I told you, I was just looking for a bathroom. And nobody sent me.” She tried to moisten her lips with her dry tongue. It didn’t work. His suspicions of her intentions unsettled her. “I’m an American tourist. I’m taking pictures of old churches around the Barcelona area.” A purposeful partial truth to hide the fact she had been following him.
“And did you confuse an old restaurant for a church?” He arched an eyebrow.
Uncertain and wary of the man in front of her, Mari was hesitant to answer. She shrugged.
“I don’t think so pretty one.” He had let go of her back, but his hand still wrapped around her arm, holding her in front of him.
“I saw all those pictures you took of me. Some on my way here today, and several more of my restaurant.” His mouth uplifted into a smile but she could see danger in those dark eyes.
Mari felt a shiver climb up her spine, and in a few short seconds drops of sweat began dripping down her sides. She hadn’t done anything wrong, but those eyes let her know she better have the right answer. If she lied, he would probably figure it out, so she began with the truth. She had followed him, she wouldn’t deny that, but she didn’t even have a good reason.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have followed you. It’s just that, well…” she hesitated, knowing she would either get herself in trouble or embarrass herself. Neither idea seemed appealing. “I saw you walking, and I was curious.” That wasn’t so hard. Brevity filled her, “I saw you in Montana and now here. Maybe you’re the one following me.” She blurted out the last part.
“Trust me, if I were following you, you would not know it.” He closed the distance between them. In spite of the frosty humidity, a surge of heat rocketed through Mari. “Do you always follow strange men and take their pictures? It is a dangerous hobby for one so pretty.” He brushed the back of his fingers down the curve of her cheek, leaving a trail of heat. “So talk to me pretty one. Did someone send you? Who do you work for?”
“I remembered seeing you in the police station in Montana. When I saw you in Barcelona I became curious and took the pictures.” Her words came out faster than she wanted, but right now she wanted to find her way out of this place. “I only wanted to look at them later and be sure it was you.” A half lie.
“Why did you come in the restaurant?”
“I thought I could just ask you. It’s a public restaurant, not a private home. I didn’t see the harm.” She tried pulling her arm back, but his grip didn’t loosen. “I figured I could ask you if you were the same man I saw in Montana.”
“Si, I was in the police station. If I had known you were coming to Spain I would have shown you around. I am a wonderful host. Now you have your answer.”
“I want to leave.” She yanked her arm free this time and stepped back, abruptly stopped by the wall behind her. In seconds, her moist skin chilled.
“Not so fast Chica. I need to know a few more things. What are you doing in Spain, and why were you in the police station in Montana?” He didn’t try to regain physical control again.
“I told you. I’m here to take pictures of old churches. I spent all day yesterday at La Sagrada Familia. I can show you the photos. It’s just a hobby, and my ancestry is from here.” Mari stopped speaking, hoping it was enough to earn his trust.
“And the police station?” He crossed his arms over his facial expression questioning.
She hoped he didn’t notice her hesitation. An inner sense told her not to divulge the fact she had been visiting her brother that night. Her brother the detective, who had arrested this man and his friends. “A friend works there. I stopped to say good bye.” She crossed her arms, and moved back in front of him, no longer feeling threatened. “Now I have answered your questions so let me go.”
“It isn’t going to be that easy to go see your friend.” He stroked her hair with the back of his hand.
Her chest constricted as she gasped for air. “What the hell do you mean?” Would they keep her? Did they intend to kill her? Her hands began shaking, followed by a pounding of fear in her chest. “You… you promised.” Her voice came out a harsh whisper.
“I’m sorry pretty one. But you stepped into, how do we say? A bad situation.”
As if the drug’s effects had returned, a light headed dizziness made her feel unbalanced. She walked over to the blanket she had been laying on. Her knees gave out and folded under her. She shuddered as the chill of the hard floor permeated through the thin blanket. Turning her head, her eyes meeting his, she decided confronting him was the only hope she had left. “Do you plan on killing me?”
If she hadn’t been watching him so closely, she would have missed the flash of concern in his eyes. He inhaled a slow deep breath, releasing it before speaking. “I am many things, some of them not good, but I am not a murderer, particularly of a pretty woman.” His lips spread to a forced smile.
Mari wondered if his intention was to reassure her. It wasn’t working. She gritted her teeth, feeling helpless and powerless because of the situation she was in. Mental images of her family, bolstered her hope. She felt reassured she would get out of this.
“I have things to take care of Chica. I will have to leave to find you more comfortable accommodations. I will return shortly. ”
“Someplace where you can dump my body after you kill me, is that it?” Mari regretted the words as soon as they flew from her lips.
She heard the deep breath he took in, as his eyelids lowered. Her remark had hit the intended target. Granted, she wanted to annoy him, but his look told her she had done much more than that. The cool air engulfed her. She shuddered.
She seethed as she watched him walk out of the room leaving behind a trail of his musky scent mixed with the vile odors entrenched in the room.
Mikel stepped through the door from the basement, squinting at the bright light that greeted him in the hall outside the kitchen. The noise from the busy staff violated his hearing after the quiet solitude of the last hour. He walked into the dining room.
“There you are brother,” Juli called from across the room. He stood to hug his brother, a common greeting between the men. Tristan, his closest friend and partner in his business ventures, followed Juli’s lead.
“So, big shot,” Tristan said, anger clear in his voice, “what do we do with our captive? This is one hell of a mess.”
“Calmate Tristan. Mikel will figure it out, he always does. You worry too much.” The ever jovial and optimistic Juli added his two cents.
Mikel sat and placed his elbows on the table, rubbing his forehead. His line of work required diverse actions of him, but getting rid of an innocent witness fell outside his realm of experience. His left eye twitched as a pain shot through it. He stared at the two men before him. “I will worry about her. But you will help me watch her. We can’t let Lito and his men see her or get near her.”
“Mikel, you told them we would get rid of her. I think we could have found another way out. Now we have few choices.” Tristan stood, and walked over to the window, pushing his hair back from his face.
Mikel felt the heat rise in his neck. “I didn’t specify what get rid of meant. If I didn’t agree to take care of her, Lito would have, and you and I both know what he and his men would do to her.” A cold cloak of fear washed over Mikel at the thought of what Lito would do to Mari. “We have to keep her hidden until Lito and his men leave town. Our job was to secure the gun buy. That will be done tomorrow and then, and only then, can we let her go.”
Tristan faced him. Mikel could see the surprise and anger in his friend’s face. They had known each other since attending the University of Barcelona when they were 18. On only a few rare occasions had Mikel lost his temper with Tristan, but today he felt his friend failed to see the consequences of acting rashly.
Lito and his men would stop at nothing to make money and achieve power. Lito would kill them on the spot if he believed someone would interfere with his desires. Mikel had witnessed it firsthand. He shuttered.
Marissa Salazar, her passport read, had walked into the finalizing of a weapons buy. Lito had been ready to kill her without hesitation. Only Juli’s quick action giving her the Ativan injection, and Mikel promising to take care of her had calmed the crazed man. Regardless, Mikel knew Lito would return. He just needed to keep her hidden until the gun buy was final, then Lito and his men would leave Barcelona.
“Why don’t we just drop her at the American Embassy? They can’t get to her there.” Juli looked between the two, he shrugged one shoulder and lifted his eyebrows.
“And then what Julen? Have them send the police here? Lito has a connection there, we already know that, so he’ll leave town and what then?” Mikel tried not to be angry with his brother, but could also not ignore his narrow minded focus.
“I’m afraid Mikel’s right on that one Juli. Lito will have people at the airport. He will get to her either here or when she arrives back in the US.” Tristan turned to Mikel and continued. “Why don’t we send her to a safe house? We can make it look like we killed her, or better yet, tell Lito we aren’t going to kill her, but keep her for our own use. Then maybe he’ll think the worst and let it go.”
“He’ll never let it go Tristan. Not as long as she is alive, and right now she is our responsibility. We’ll take her to the company apartment. With the underground parking and security we can get her there without someone seeing her. Juli, you’ll have to stay with her while Tristan and I go to the meet up tomorrow.” He watched Juli shrug, but it was Tristan’s lack of action that bothered him.
“Tristan, tell me what you are thinking. I can read it in your face, something is bothering you.”
“We’ll be a man short. All three of us are supposed to go to this buy.” Tristan took quick strides to the table and slapped his palms down on the Formica surface in front of Mikel. Though shorter than Mikel and Juli, he could be more imposing.
Tristan wore his anger like a knife wielding convict. Mikel’s fiancé, Angelique, was Tristan’s sister and her death had left Tristan bitter. He had told Mikel he would be less angry when they caught the man who’d killed her, but Mikel wondered if Tristan could ever put aside his grief.
“It’s better if the three of us aren’t together Tristan.” Mikel kept his voice even and quiet but with a tone of authority. He had to find a way to keep Tristan focused on their mission, not the woman. “If they don’t know where Juli is they will be concerned he’s watching from a distance. Tthey’ll be less likely to deceive us. Let’s focus on the mission Tris, and it will all work out.”
Mikel carefully watched his friend until his shoulders slumped, a sign of acceptance but Mikel knew it was not one of defeat. His own turning stomach began to still. Having Juli involved in any of their gun running operations had never been Mikel’s plan. Juli’s connections had been the only reason Mikel had agreed to let his younger brother become part of their operations. Any opportunity he could, he kept him at a distance from the sinister and dangerous situations.
“I need both of you to go to the company penthouse, and make sure it is secure. I want extra surveillance added around the garage and in the hallways.” Mikel closed his eyes. He knew he had to get the security right. He couldn’t miss something that could get them all killed.
“Both of you go to the apartment she is renting and get all of her belongings. It’s best she not go back. We don’t know what will happen after the buy goes down. He might somehow find where she had been staying and send someone there. Meet us at the penthouse.” He pushed a note with the address across to Juli, who still leaned on the table. “She had the apartment rental listed on her cell. I’ll keep the cell. Bring her suitcase and anything else she has there. Have someone clear the place and empty it. Find out who owns the place and make sure it is paid up.” Mikel again closed his eyes as if to help himself concentrate. They couldn’t forget any details at this point. “If it isn’t, pay it, don’t say anything but make sure it is empty, nothing for Lito to find. When the deal goes down we can get her inconspicuously flown to the US and give ourselves time to go into hiding.”
Tristan grabbed the note and gave Mikel a look he knew all too well. Tristan would comply, but he didn’t agree with Mikel’s decision. He rarely challenged Mikel, but he made it clear when he did. Mikel shrugged it off, he had to keep the woman safe.
Mikel’s sight bounced from Tristan to Juli, and back, an admonishment for them to maintain their full focus on his instructions. Any screw ups and Lito would be able to track her down. “Don’t open or run any computers, even e-readers. I believe her when she says she hadn’t seen me before today, but we need to confirm that. I’ll have Luciana go over her electronics.” Luciana, their computer goddess, worked mainly out of their office, but on occasion traveled with them on an op. Tristan could do most of what she could do but Mikel needed him in the field, so Luciana did most of their surveillance.
He gave them additional instructions. Handing Juli the key, he warned them to keep alert. He walked over to the window and gazed out of the closed blind. Lito probably had his men watching and if they saw the woman with him, they would follow them. He had to get her out of here.
Mikel trusted everyone he hired, the restaurant was strictly a financial investment, its human capital solely dependent on the chef who was responsible to hire the staff. He didn’t know how well they could be trusted. The stress inched up his neck. A tightness in the muscles began straining his upper back. They just had to get through tomorrow, and then he could let her go. The entire unforeseen complication would be over, the beautiful woman with the dark complexion would be history.