A Dangerous Game: sample chapters

                                                                                                                   PROLOGUE

 

                                                                                                                      MEXICO

 

Charlie Picket opened his eyes as pain throbbed beneath his skull. He had a full bladder that added to his discomfort. He lifted his head from the pillow and stared up at the sunlight filtering through the yellowing curtain hanging loosely over the window, groaned and laid his head back down again, willing the pain to go away and wanting more sleep to come. He tried to process the thoughts rolling around in his head, but rationalizing got him nowhere until he recalled the motel: the tired looking dusty dwellings struggling for space in the sun-burned landscape, and the road that twisted and turned its way through the thorn bush and the dried river beds.

   The small town was like an oasis for him: a place where he could rest his weary body and enjoy his first night of freedom from the stinking, rat infested Mexican jail. The motel was a pretence: a paradox in such a remote place. The squat building seemed to sag against the oppressive heat but at the same time offered sanctuary. Picket didn't know how far he had driven from those forbidding prison walls, but he needed a break. And before getting his head down for the night, he found his need for some kind of diversion in the colourful bar across the road, which was why he felt the way he did.

   But the nagging pressure in his bladder forced its way into his thoughts and he pushed himself up on to one elbow to take stock. The thudding inside his head increased and his discomfort urged him to get out of bed before he pissed himself. He sat up, his head drooping from his shoulders and his arm trembling a little as it supported him. The bed sheet slipped down to his waist. He grabbed at the thin edge and was about to pull it off when he saw her.

   'What the f....!'

   The expletive died in his throat as his eyes fell on the girl. She was quite small, looked about thirteen years old, and was sitting on the upright chair in the corner of the room just three feet from the end of his bed. She wore what Picket thought were pyjamas and had no shoes on her feet. Her hair was dishevelled and bloody. Her pyjama top was torn and stained with mud. Her small, bare feet were covered in blood. She was sitting there as though she belonged, holding a gun and pointing it straight at him.

 

 

                                                                                                               Chapter One

                                                                                                           Two Weeks Earlier

 

Emilio Valdez knew he was taking a massive gamble. The trip was planned to be a meeting of minds: a 'cumbre' of Latin American leaders where they would discuss the new cooperation between their countries, while behind closed doors other less public issues would be talked over. There would be hard bargaining, veiled threats and pseudo promises as the power brokers had their wishes sewn into the fabric of any agreement, however temporary, between the men in suits. Valdez would be mixing with the big-hitters in South American politics, but he had to appear to be acting normally for his audacious plan to succeed.

   The flight to Mexico City for the meeting had been delayed because of a crew change: the co-pilot had phoned in sick. Although Valdez was not unsettled by this change of events, he felt apprehensive. By operating in the confined world of the drug cartels, often with the unspoken threat of falling out of favour with the ruthless bosses, Valdez always understood that changes should not be forced on him; it led to misunderstanding and often lack of trust. But the die had been cast, and the delay had to be factored in. The bank transfers were planned for midnight the following day, Western Standard Time, which would be the start of the business day in Switzerland. It meant he would spend a great deal of time living on his nerves, and until he was airborne, he knew he would not and could not rest easily. He heard the sound of a car horn and glanced at the gold Rolex on his wrist. Picking up his briefcase and small travelling bag, he took one last look around the room and headed for the front door.

   The sun disappeared below the horizon and allowed the ground to give up its heat. The lights were coming on in the city and day was giving way to night. Traffic was beginning to ease up but soon the evening air would be filled with different sounds. Throughout the city those people who populated the darkness were beginning to leave their homes and find the dark corners where they found stimulus in the nightlife. The hookers would walk the streets; the dealers would sell their drugs in shop doorways and back alleyways. The nightclubs would fill with drinkers and the roulette tables with gamblers ever praying lady luck would be their companion that night. And the sound of police sirens would provide a backdrop to the dark symphony of the small hours. Valdez had no interest in any of that. He was heading for an unknown future: one that could separate him from a past that always threatened to overwhelm him but also provided everything he ever needed.

   Emilio Valdez was Colombian. He was fifty years old and carried himself well. He was of average height and moderate build. There was nothing about the man that made him stand out in a crowd, but it was his sharp and powerful intellect that made Valdez the man he was. Albert Einstein once said that intellect has powerful muscles, but no personality. It summed Valdez up: he had a phenomenal intellect but very little personality.

   Valdez had been born in a small village in the southern half of Colombia and raised by his grandmother who had wisely invested in his education when she realized he needed more than just the local village school and the promise of a poverty stricken, rural life. She used her persuasive tongue and her enormous sexual drive to cut through the tedious red tape at every bureaucratic level, and secured Valdez a place in one of the higher schools in the capital, Bogotá. She never regretted it and died in surroundings far more comfortable than she could ever envisaged thanks to her grandson's quick brain and gift for making money. It was this brilliance a leading Columbian drug cartel noticed, and its benign coercion without threat persuaded Valdez to move to America and build firm links into the United States by legitimizing the Colombian cartel’s business interests in that country.

   Thirty minutes after leaving the villa, Valdez left the airport terminal building. He walked beneath an umbrella of arc lights flooding the sleek lines of a Gulfstream jet. Valdez's stomach knotted and he closed his eyes as he approached the plane. He had flown many times before because his business affairs often demanded it, but one flight changed his attitude to air when the aeroplane on which he was travelling crashed and Valdez had escaped with his life. The fear of flying after that never left him. Whenever he wanted to travel, it was either by land or sea if it was possible. But he couldn't avoid this flight; his future depended on it.

   Waiting at the steps of the Gulfstream was the first officer. He apologized for the delay as he stepped up into the aircraft. Once Valdez was through the door, the officer clambered up and closed the two doors, bringing the lower step up first before securing the upper section. Valdez watched as the crewman seemed to struggle with the locking mechanism. After a while he nodded his satisfaction and turned to Valdez.

   'Couple of minutes, sir and we'll be cleared for take-off.'

   The interior of the jet was luxuriously appointed, but it left Valdez untouched. By now he was sweating and could feel the moisture gathering around his neck and in his scalp. He fell into one of the leather seats, his briefcase still clutched in his hand. His travel bag had been taken from him and stowed away. He let the briefcase drop on to the carpeted floor beneath his feet and brought the two ends of the seat belt together. He closed his eyes as the buckle snapped into place and leaned back. He sat composing himself, thinking and taking deep breaths. Suddenly the cabin lights flickered and Valdez heard the whine of the starters as the turbines whirled into life. The vibration trembled up through his feet. Then the jet lurched and they were moving forward. He wanted to look out of the window but his fear kept his eyes clamped shut, and his body rigid. It took almost ten minutes for the plane to reach the end of the runway where it stopped for a brief moment. Then the engines roared and it was gone, hurtling down the runway and lifting into the night sky.

   Valdez let out a deep sigh and relaxed. There was smoothness now and little sound as the jet climbed. The tension began to drain away until he was experiencing just a mild terror, but nothing like the level it had reached earlier. He felt a little happier now they were airborne, although still nervous of what was to come. He leaned forward and lifted his briefcase up from the floor, opened it and checked the small package was still there. He slipped the package into the inside pocket of his jacket and snapped the lid of the briefcase shut. As he did that the thought of his daughter came into his mind. He put the fingers of one hand to his neck and smiled: Consuelo, his little princess who held the key to his future. He closed his eyes and the smile gradually faded from his lips. Perhaps, he hoped, sleep would come.

                                                                                                                    *

Charlie Picket was a bag-man for the Mob. He wasn't a villain or a thug, but was what his boss, Pedro Garcia, called a 'clean skin': someone who could be used on legitimate work and parochial tasks like collecting protection money from bars and small business outlets within Garcia's self-appointed empire. His boss liked that about Picket: he was clean, had no form, never took drugs, never dealt in them. He kept himself fit by boxing, lifting weights and running, and was altogether quite a likeable, personable guy. Because of his pleasant demeanour, Picket was able to do his rounds picking up the money from the various business outlets controlled by the family, even managing to make the owners of those businesses feel they weren't being put out when handing over their cash. He wasn't a big guy, like some heavies who were well over six feet and weighed in at about two hundred pounds. He was a couple inches shy of six feet and tipped the scales at about one hundred and sixty pounds. He was tough though and fast when it came to looking after himself, and too much for anyone who thought they might chance their arm at relieving him of Garcia's money.

Charlie Picket's real name was Carlos Piquet, but his mother had Anglicized it when she took him back to England after her Mexican husband, Picket's father, had died. Picket grew up in London and assimilated into life as an English boy growing up in the big city. He did well at school, but always longed to join the British Army as soon as he was old enough. He served in the Parachute Regiment and saw service in Iraq and Afghanistan. He completed a nine year engagement; three of those years in the SAS. But the futility of fighting for a political cause in which he never believed was the prime factor that undermined his confidence in his political masters and hurried his decision to leave and make a life for himself elsewhere. The army had been good to him and allowed him to engage in sporting pursuits he enjoyed, which included boxing. Because of his size and innate ability, Picket was good enough to box for his regiment. After leaving the army, he made the decision to go to America and study Law and Latin American Studies at Phoenix University in Arizona.

   He began working for the Mafia in a legitimate capacity as a barman in one of their nightclubs to pay his way through college. Using his physique and boxing skills, Picket had been able to diffuse trouble on occasions and it was this that got him noticed by those close to Pedro Garcia. They moved him on to more prosaic things, and Picket discovered he quite liked the job he had been asked to do. Although it interfered with his daily routine at college, he kept promising himself he would complete his studies one day and obtain his degree. He had promised his mother he would return to England, but she had died while he was in Phoenix. This left him with nothing and no one to go back to. He did return to tidy up his mother's affairs, but there was no reason for him to linger in England, so he returned to America where he planned to apply for citizenship.

   After a day's work and an hour in the gym honing his skills and keeping his fitness level up, Picket was driving past Phoenix airport when he had to slow for a traffic accident. It was a hot night and he had the windows down on his BMW. The sound of an aircraft taking off drew his attention. He looked over to the end of the runway, thinking about flying away somewhere exotic: Hawaii perhaps; Fiji maybe. The traffic cop banged on the bonnet of the BMW, dragging Picket back to the present. He pulled the car out and around the accident and gave up all thoughts of flying and exotic destinations.

                                                                                                                           *

Maria Valdez pulled into the driveway of her home in Tucson and killed the motor in her well used, ten year old Toyota Corolla. Beside her was her thirteen year old daughter, Consuelo, who Maria had picked up from a friend's home after a busy day at her job with Lindale Realty. The day had been no different to her usual, weekday routine: up early, drop her daughter off at school and then on to her job as a receptionist at Lindale's. End of the day she would drive to her friend's place, pick her daughter up, drive home, cook a meal and unwind with a glass of red and some TV. Weekends were different of course, but there was not a great deal in Maria Valdez's life that would incite pure joy and contentment in her current situation, and certainly no room for extravagance. Although still a young woman, she was not interested in a relationship with anybody, but from time to time she felt the need of male company. Having a thirteen year old in tow meant there was very little time for romance or romantic intrigue. So her weekdays were routine, but Saturdays would mean a trip to the Mall, spend a little time window shopping, pick up the groceries and head back to the house. Consuelo would usually be with her, but sometimes her daughter had begged off and been allowed to remain at home with her beloved computer. Maria was never sure what she did but was assured, if that was the right word, that there was no reason to worry. Sometimes Maria wondered if there was such a time in her life when she had the luxury of not worrying over what kept her daughter happy because there was very little she could change. Saturday afternoon was left to take care of itself, but on Sunday it was always church. Maria was a strong, Roman Catholic and determined to bring her daughter up in the same faith — something of a challenge in the modern, secular world that filtered into every aspect of the American way of life.

   'So what did you do at school today, Princess?' Maria asked her daughter as she locked the car.

   'Stuff.'

   Maria smiled. It was often the same: school work was boring to someone with her daughter's ability. She was blessed with an outstanding memory and almost total recall, but nevertheless her studies were an essential part in the building blocks of life. In her daughter's case it was a kind of subliminal exercise in developing modern skills in the world of technology, which the youngster believed was beneath her level of ability. Maria always called her daughter Princess. It was something her husband had started when their daughter was born, and had become habitual. Now Maria found it very difficult to call Consuelo by her first name. Her husband — ex-husband — was no longer part of her life, although he did have some input into Consuelo's.

   'And how are you getting on with this 'stuff'’? She asked as she opened the front door.

   Princess shrugged. 'No problem.'

   It was true of course. She ducked under her mother's outstretched arm and hurried along to her room. Maria dropped her car keys into a small, clay jar on the hallway table and was about to head for the kitchen when she saw an envelope lying on the floor. She picked it up. It was addressed to Princess. There was nothing else, just her daughter's name. No stamp either, which meant it had been delivered by hand. She frowned and called through to her daughter.

   'Princess, there's a letter here for you. I'll put it on the kitchen table.'

   She took the envelope through and within a minute Princess appeared and swiped it from the table. She disappeared as Maria was about to ask what she wanted for tea.

   Princess went through to her room and sat on the bed. She opened the envelope and pulled the single sheet of paper out. All that was written on the paper was a series of characters. She felt her stomach give a little turn as she committed the characters to memory and tore the paper into several pieces which she then threw into a waste bin. She put her hand to her throat and clutched at the small, teddy bear mascot hanging from a chain necklace round her neck. It made her tingle with excitement. Satisfied she left her room closing the door behind her.

   'What was in your letter?' her mother asked when Princess walked into the kitchen.

   'Nothing, just talk.'

   Maria arched her eyebrows. Her daughter had a way of clamming up over her teenage quirkiness, and questions that might lead to secret revelations were strictly off-limits. She decided it was probably an invitation from one of Princess's friends for a sleepover. It wasn't worth pursuing.

   Princess went to her school bag and pulled out her laptop. Then she hitched herself up on to a stool by the breakfast bar and flipped the computer open. Her head would now be buried in it until her mother put a meal in front of her. Maria often wished it was a book she had her head buried in, and not necessarily modern, children's novels, but perhaps a classic or two. She knew it was too much to ask though; Princess's education was not suffering, judging by her class work and exam results.

She placed a dish of pasta on the breakfast bar. 'Plates!' she reminded her daughter.

Princess closed the laptop. Then she slid off the chair and retrieved a couple of plates while her mother finished piling side dishes next to the pasta bowl.

   The meal went down well and it was late by the time the kitchen had been cleared of the debris. Princess always spent a little time with her mother before scurrying off to bed with warnings ringing in her ears about getting some sleep and not spending too much time with her laptop. Maria had often gone into her daughter's room and tucked her in after closing the lid of her computer and turning the lights out. On this occasion she paused at the door. The light from the hallway spilled in and spread in a soft layer over her sleeping daughter. She smiled and closed the door. It was late now and tomorrow was another day. It would be much the same as today because the days were routine, and Maria could see nothing in the immediate future that would change. And with this thought in her mind she took herself off to bed wondering what, if anything, the future would bring.

 

 

                                                                                                             Chapter Two

 

Alfredo Suarez had been on duty for little more than twenty minutes in the radar control room at the base of the Mexicali air traffic control tower when the Gulfstream trace disappeared from his screen. He checked to see if all the aircraft in his area were still painting visual traces and knew immediately that something had gone wrong. He transmitted a 'call sign loss of radar identification', made a note of the latitude and longitude position and called the Gulfstream again. There was no response, so he spun in his chair and called to his supervisor. The supervisor came over and checked across Suarez's shoulder, then picked up the phone and contacted the tower technicians to make sure the radar was fully serviceable. Once that assurance had been reached he told Suarez to try raising the Gulfstream on the international emergency frequency of 121.5 megahertz and then spoke to the duty controller at the top of the tower.

   'Control, we've lost Lima Echo Charlie from our screen. Can you confirm?'

  He waited a few seconds and then put out a general emergency call to all other control agencies in an attempt to raise the Gulfstream. He then contacted the Mexican rescue services. Five minutes later, the rescue services at Mexicali were on full alert although there was little anyone could do until the sun came up. But in the meantime, a call was put through to the American Border Search Trauma and Rescue Service (BORSTAR) station based along the Interstate Highway in case the Gulfstream had crashed State-side. Another call went through to the Arizona Division of Emergency Management (ADEM) which alerted all County Sheriffs' departments and the Arizona Wing of the Civil Air Patrol. By early morning there would be a coordinated air search on both sides of the border covering the entire Sonora desert. If the jet had crashed there, they would find it.

                                                                                                                            *

Several hours later, a Beechcraft single engine aircraft was heading across the Sonora desert on a quartering search for the wreck of the Gulfstream. The pilot, Doug Cheadle had been roused from his bed at an ungodly hour by the American Search and Rescue coordinator in an effort to get Cheadle airborne by sun-up. It was one of the penalties of being a willing volunteer, although the astronomical fee he charged the rescue services was always a welcome sweetener.

  Cheadle had been given the coordinates at where the Gulfstream last 'painted' its presence in the Mexicali control tower, although he had been warned that the jet had taken an unexpected and un-logged course and height change. This had been universally accepted as the beginning of an accident, and it made good sense to fly a search pattern that triangulated on both bearing directions.

  Cheadle wondered how long the search would take, bearing in mind that the Sonora desert covered 120,000 sq. miles of territory straddling the American-Mexican border: one of the hottest and driest places on earth.

  The sun was rising behind the Beechcraft, throwing long shadows across the desert landscape. Cheadle was flying at a thousand feet, and it took about an hour before he spotted the ugly scar that looked like an intruder into the obviously inhospitable terrain below him. He turned over the top of the scar and the sun blazed into his cockpit, swinging through an arc as the tiny aircraft curled its way down towards the desert floor.

  The sprawling, parched landscape looked clear enough in parts to allow the Beechcraft to land, but Cheadle knew from experience that there were areas of the desert that were littered with Ironwoods: prehistoric tree stumps as hard as steel which would rip into the soft tyres of the aircraft as easily as a knife slicing through fruit. Bringing the plane to land was out of the question.

  He flew over the wreckage several times before calling the search and rescue headquarters with the grid position and told them there was no sign of survivors. What Cheadle did see simply made him shake his head in sadness as he pulled the stick back and began the climb and turn which would take him home.

                                                                                                                        *

Picket climbed out of bed and stretched, raising his arms high to shake off the effects of a good night's sleep, wandered through to the bathroom and spent ten minutes under the shower. Fifteen minutes later he went through to the kitchen of his small apartment and brewed a cup of tea. It was one of Picket's un-American activities he enjoyed: a nice cup of tea, but he had to pay a high price for his favourite blend. He'd even asked his boss if he could smuggle it into Arizona for expatriate Englishmen like himself. His boss told him there was no money in it. He checked out the CNN news on TV and caught up with the sports results while he ate. This consisted of a couple of scrambled eggs with toasted rye bread and more tea. After his breakfast, Picket went back to the bathroom and finished his ablutions, leaving the apartment as the streets of Phoenix began to fill with workers.

The drive from his place in Scottsdale to the Zumiez Shopping Mall off the main freeway took about thirty minutes. His boss, Pedro Garcia, owned a small café there which he made the habitual starting point for his day. Picket was normally given a list of pick-ups which took up most of his time, and covered a fairly wide area. Once that had been done, and the dividends as Garcia liked to call them were paid in, Picket was allowed to spend the rest of the day how he chose. But today was different: today was going to change Picket's life forever.

                                                                                                                        *

The two American border guards climbed out of their Chevrolet Suburban and looked in amazement and horror at the blackened, mangled wreckage strewn over a wide area. The crashing jet had laid waste to the sagebrush and cactus, burning it to a cinder. They could almost feel the heat that would have radiated from the crash, except the only heat being generated now was from the sun, bringing the temperature up to close on forty degrees Celsius and set to go higher.

Milt Jackson, the senior of the two men took a mouthful of iced water from a bottle he had taken from the vehicle's survival pack. He removed his hat, mopped his brow with a sprinkling of the liquid, then screwed the top back on and tossed it to his companion.

  'Won't find any survivors in this lot, Kyle,' he said, stating the obvious and shaking his head.

  His partner, Kyle Langan drank from the bottle, smacked his lips, closed the bottle up and then flipped it into the cab of the vehicle through the open window.

'Poor bastards,' he said softly, shaking his head. Using the toe of his boot, he began kicking over some of the charred metal scattered around his feet. Then he looked up at the sun and shielded his eyes. 'Even if anybody did get out of this, they wouldn't stand a chance; this heat would kill them.'

  Jackson shrugged. 'Well, guess we'd better get things moving; the safety boys will be here soon.'

                                                                                                                            *

Pedro Garcia was reading a newspaper when Picket walked into the café. He glanced over at the young waitress, Rosemary, who was leaning on the counter engaged in conversation with the handsome young buck working on the other side. She caught Picket's reflection in the mirror and turned towards him as he mouthed the word 'coffee'. He wouldn't risk asking for tea; the Americans still didn't know how to make it. She affected a curtsy and winked. Picket didn't think he would have much chance of a date. Not that he had ever asked her out because she was married. He pulled out a chair and sat down beside Garcia who nodded and began folding his newspaper.

   'Morning boss.'

   Garcia grunted and laid the newspaper on the table. 'You know my daughter, Carmen?' he began without preamble, shaking his head. 'She'll be the death of me and her mother. Always wants more. Know what I mean?' Picket didn't bother to answer; he knew when to speak and when not to. Garcia carried on. 'She should be married, have kids, settle down. Hey, she could have her pick of the chicos, but no, she knows best. Her mother, she tells her she should listen to her father, to me.' He jabbed a thumb in his chest and looked indignantly at Picket.

   Picket said nothing. He had no idea what his boss was leading up to, but it didn't matter whether he was working or not because he was getting paid while he listened.

   The coffee turned up and he glanced at Rosemary who winked at him. He thought about that date and wondered if there was any chance. He'd never met her husband, and she never mentioned him.

   'She has to go to Guadalajara,' Garcia was saying. Picket paid attention again. 'Goes every year to a gun club there. It's like a pilgrimage: competition or something.' He wrinkled his nose. 'Loco if you ask me.' He turned away. Picket thought the conversation was over. 'That's a thousand miles away I tell her,' Garcia went on, 'She won't listen. And she wants to see her grandmother too.' He picked up an empty cognac glass. 'Rosemary!'

   She was taking an order for another customer, but looked over at Garcia and nodded. He put the glass down. 'So she's going tomorrow.' Picket had just picked up his coffee and was about to take a sip. 'I want you to go with her.'

                                                                                                                           *

The two border guards heard the helicopter and looked up as the sound came across what was left of the withered sage brush. The sound of the whirling blades cut through the hot air. The desert plants bent in the down-draught as vortexes of dust and sand climbed and scattered beneath the descending machine. When the helicopter had settled, four men scrambled out carrying bags in their hands and wearing the distinctive jackets of the NTSB: The National Transportation Safety Board. This was the 'Go' team: experts in their own field who would have been assigned by the Safety Board in Washington D.C.

   The men ducked their heads as they moved away from the helicopter, straightening up when they were clear. Milt Jackson glanced at his colleague before stepping forward towards the men. The man in the front of the team held his hand out. Jackson shook it with a firm grip.

   'Nathan Jakes,' he told him, letting his hand drop. 'Safety Board. Cole Ventura, Travis Niles and Ed Coombs.' He pointed to each one in turn.

   Jackson offered a peremptory nod of the head and hooked a thumb over his shoulder. 'This is Kyle Langan, my deputy. I'm Milt Jackson.' He had to raise his voice above the noise of the spinning helicopter blades as they slowed.

   'Do you know anything about this?' Jakes asked, pointing out over the wreckage.

   'Don't know anything at all,' Jackson told him. 'Got a call to get out here to this location. Search for survivors they said.'

Jakes smiled without humour. 'Optimists obviously.' He glanced round at the men who were now grouped around him. 'We'll take over from here.' He turned and looked out over the parched desert scrub-land. 'We'll have to set up a perimeter. Anybody turns up, keep them clear. OK?'

   Jackson nodded. 'Only people you're likely to see out here are illegals: people trying to smuggle their way into America.'

Jakes eyebrows lifted. 'Here? In this bloody wilderness?'

   Jackson laughed. 'You better believe it.' He was about to leave Jakes and his team to their business, but stopped for a moment.. 'Oh, the fire department are on their way.' He looked at the wreckage. 'But I don't think they'll be needed.' He thought of something else. 'You guys going to be here long?'

    Jakes gave it some thought. 'Week or so maybe. Depends how fast we get things catalogued. Why?'

   Jackson breathed in deep and then breathed out. It was like a disappointed sigh. He shook his head. 'You can't work out here without shelter of some kind. You'll also need plenty of water and food to eat.'

   'We'll be OK,' Jakes told him. 'We've got some supplies coming in. The pilot's going on ahead to Yuma to pick up essentials. Got a truck coming too.'

   Jackson seemed satisfied. 'Sounds like you've got it covered. We'll stay with you till your gear turns up. We've got supplies in the truck if you need anything though.'

Jakes thanked him and looked up towards the climbing sun. 'Guess we'd better get started then before we all fry.'

                                                                                                                        *

   'Guadalajara!' Picket nearly burned his mouth on the scalding coffee. 'Mexico?'

   Garcia shrugged. 'Now you see why she's such a burden to her mother.'

   Picket noticed he had forgotten to include himself. 'And you want me to go with her?'

  His boss nodded. 'I know it's a long way Carlos and I don't want her travelling on her own.' Garcia never called Picket by his English name.

   Carmen was about twenty five years old and the apple of her father's eye. Picket had only met her a couple of times. He knew little about her except that she was a member of a local gun club, and enjoyed a great deal of success in competition and had reached national standard. Her father never lost time in bragging about her. Carmen's reaction to Picket on their first meeting had been difficult for him to fathom, given her prowess in a mainly macho gun environment. He decided she didn't like him, which kind of precluded too much social contact with her. Except in this instance it seemed.

   'Why me?'

   It was a simple enough question. 'You're clean, Carlos,' he answered. 'You can get back into the States no problem.'

   Picket's boss had many employees with either criminal records or no status. The majority were illegal immigrants, which meant they were usually Mexican or Puerto Rican. Once they left the United States, they could have a big problem getting back in. It made sense: Picket was made for the job.

   Garcia put his hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope, which he placed on the table. 'Your tickets, US Airways leaving day after tomorrow.' He tapped the envelope. 'There's a thousand dollars in there. Take my daughter to her grandmother and get back here as soon as you can. And don't let her talk you into anything. Nothing, understand?'

   Picket picked up the envelope and shoved it into his pocket. He didn't know what to say. But then, he couldn't say anything. He could refuse, but that would mean he would lose his job. And as much as he liked his job, and however much he was liked by Garcia, he knew without doubt that he didn't have a choice.

   'Where will I meet Carmen?' he asked, and picked up his cup.

   'She'll be at the airport.' He waved a hand dismissively. 'Now, take today and tomorrow off and I'll see you when you get back.'