Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.― Confucius
“Check the perimeter,” a guttural voice charged. “Shoot anything that moves.”
From bad to worse in a heartbeat. Cici’s gaze darted around, looking for a possible place to hide. She heard the crunching of multiple pairs of boots over the dry ground getting ever nearer.
She tipped her head, straining to catch any further words on the heat-soaked breeze. Eighty-nine degrees when she last checked around three in the afternoon. The heat wave and drought refused to break even this late in September, causing unpleasantness for the entire region.
Now, as her heart thumped in arrhythmic sympathy, her mind conjured scenarios for the men.
None of the thoughts were positive.
Cici had traveled to Chaco Cultural National Historical Park wanting to avail herself of the solitude there to weigh the pros and cons of the executive reverend position for the large church in Portland, Oregon. When she’d flown up to Portland and interviewed with the search committee a few weeks ago, she hadn’t expected to be made an offer—not with the quality candidates they were sure to bring in.
But the church committee had offered Cici the job with a salary boost and a moving package to entice her further. Temptation flitted through her, overlaid by disappointment and despair.
She wanted a life.
No, she wanted a family; a deep, intimate connection to people within her world. Which meant something in her current life must change—something huge, like her job or the pseudo-communications with her dead twin.
Something big…but not this. Never, ever yet another life-or-death, kill-first-never-bother-to-ask-questions situation.
Footsteps neared. Cici stiffened as another voice rose, dripping with hostility. She peeked around the wall where she sat and her heart rate tripled, beating hard and fast as a bird’s wings against a cage.
And in that moment, Cici feared not just for her life, but for the other two men whose voices she’d heard because…because…
One of them gripped a gun in his fist.
She stared at the dull metal barrel, her bag of trail mix sliding from her fingers, her mind numb.
Cici took a deep breath of dust-clogged air. She stiffened her spine and gave a mental middle finger to the entire world, including her sister.
No way was Cici going to die under the harsh New Mexican sun just because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not out here, in the middle of nowhere—in one of the most barren stretches of desert in the entire country. That’s why Cici chose this location: a getaway to consider her life and plan her future.
No way, Anna Carmen Sandra Gurule.
Wow. Her sister had a long name. She’d never understood her sister’s double first name, but Cecilia and Anna Carmen had the same number of syllables, so Cici rarely gave it much thought.
The randomness of her thoughts helped calm her enough to get a deep breath into her lungs. No longer lightheaded, Cici’s vision improved and she managed to drag in another breath, ears straining for the next sound—any indication of where the men were.
One of the men said, “Is all this drama necessary? I mean, your ability to drill oil has been cut off for a while—”
The more guttural voice cut him off. “Save it. You know why you’re out here.” He had a slight accent—one not native to this area. Cici couldn’t place it.
“No, I don’t, actually,” the first man’s voice turned almost conversational. “Can’t say I expected you to drag me out into the ruins with guns. I mean, that feels very eighties spy novel. Back in the Cold War days.”
Who the heck remained conversational—so casual and unperturbed—when someone pointed a gun at them?
Cici never wanted to find out if she was capable of that particular skill. She supposed she should say again. She’d had to do that before, the whole time trying not to lose control of her voice or bowels. She did, however, want to point her phone’s camera at the scene unfolding in front of her and get a decent picture of Guttural Voice who was threatening the other man. She rose slowly from her crouching position and tried to hold her phone steady enough to snap a clear picture.
When she pressed the button, it made the shutter-click sound. Cici dropped to the ground with a grimace as she flipped the switch to set her phone on silent mode. Her breathing once again became ragged.
Lord, she was the worst stealth investigator in the history of the world. Her stomach rippled as she held her breath, all muscles poised to flee.
“What was that?” Guttural Voice asked.
“At no time was kidnapping or murder suggested as part of the plan.” The man was on a roll or he’d seen Cici—at least heard her camera click—and tried to distract the bad guy. Was that something she wanted? To be in one of these men’s debts?
Could she allow a man to be shot and not try to save him?
A flurry of thoughts rammed through her brain so quickly, Cici couldn’t grasp any of them.
“Go check out that noise, Don.”
“You said no one was here.” Cici assumed that was Don talking; it wasn’t the voice of the other two men. Don had a thicker accent than Guttural Voice. Eastern European, maybe?
“Besides, I told you to check the perimeter. There’s a car here,” Don complained.
Cici tensed, having forgotten about the other guy—Don, apparently—who was ordered to kill everything on sight.
That was not a statement to forget. Ever.
Cici edged away from the voices, intent first to buy herself some distance. Her only option appeared to be a mad sprint back toward her car, which was about three-tenths of a mile from her current location. Less than half a mile, if she could get around the kivas and haul butt.
She peered out at the flat, barren landscape devoid of trees or even clumps of boulders to hide behind and grumbled another curse. Most of the time Cici loved New Mexico. Today when her life hung in the balance? Not so much.
Chaco Canyon, as all the locals called it, was a group of interconnected, dusty ruins built into the northwestern New Mexico landscape that offered a glimpse into a vast pre-Columbian cultural complex used for ceremonies, trade, and political activity. While interesting enough to garner a UNESCO seal, Cici had been fascinated with the Chacoan society because of a story her mother, Sandra, had told her and her sister as they’d sat overlooking the Plaza in Santa Fe—the last place the gambler was supposed to visit.
Anna Carmen had begged their mom to drive them to Chaco, but they’d never had time. Later, once Sandra died, Anna Carmen had asked Cici to go with her to poke through the great house built by the Chacoans to buy back the men, women, and children won by the gambler, but Cici had been too far away, then too busy.
Today, she was fulfilling that promise to her sister, exploring Pueblo Bonita, one of the many ruined complexes, taking in the sheer majesty of the multi-storied adobe structure, when the voices drifted forward on the wind.
Now, after seeing the men and the guns, Cici knew, deep in her bones, she had moved well beyond the realm of reasonable and into a category of the most rotten luck possible.
She wished her dogs were with her. Or Sam.
She swallowed hard.
She’d slunk from town at the first opportunity to avoid him. The problem was, Cici couldn’t see Detective Samuel Chastain and remain the pal-around-gal she’d been all these years. Ever since he’d kissed her, Cici’s lips tingled whenever she so much as heard his voice. And that was just…just…well, it was damn uncomfortable was what it was.
Later. Focus on that later. When she wasn’t so near guns. Crap on Challah bread. This wasn’t how she saw her first vacay in three years going.
She needed a thick copse of trees to dash into. Or more rocks. Anything she could hide behind and use to her advantage.
Sadly, nothing appeared.
She sucked in a deep breath and edged toward a doorway. From it, she looked forward through three more doorways. She kept her back pressed against the adobe bricks. Mud and straw—not much protection against a bullet, but the best Cici could use. Nothing moved.
With a deep breath, she scuttled forward, much like a hermit crab darting from the safety of one too-small shell to its hopeful new home.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw two of the men. The man pointing the gun seemed more nervous than the man staring down the barrel. The man with the gun pointed at him must have caught her movement from the corner of his eye because he shifted, forcing Guttural Voice to turn his back toward Cici as she edged farther through the complex.
“Care to explain how we moved from casual acquaintances of maybe-we-should-work-together to you pointing a pistol at my chest?”
At the next intersection, Cici paused. She breathed in deep and let the breath trickle out, seeking enough serenity to think of a plan. Her brain kept screaming run!
But that wasn’t her smartest move. Not with more than a quarter mile between her and her car—the only route of escape. Keys! They were in her pack. She needed those to make a faster getaway.
Slowly, to avoid making any additional noise, Cici took off her pack and shoved her hand inside the small side compartment. She took her time, undoing the clip that held her key chain with one hand, grasping the keys with her other fist.
“When you decided to stick your nose into our business and take items that do not belong to you.”
“Let me play along. Suppose I did take something—and I’m not saying I did. But if I did, were you the original owner?”
“You say stupid things. Who owned originally doesn’t matter. What matters is I have it now.”
“But, based on what you said, you do not have the…what is it?”
Guttural Voice swore. “You’re trying to confuse me. Trying to bait me into telling you what I took…” Guttural Voice cursed again. “Never mind that. You didn’t do your homework on the Bratva.” Guttural Voice seemed to be speaking away from her.
Bratva? Cici shook her head. Not a word she knew.
“I work in permitting oil and gas leases for the State of New Mexico. Until now, I’ve never heard anyone mention something called the Bratva,” the man said. “Doesn’t sound Spanish.”
Where was Don? Hopefully moving toward the back of the complex, where Cici stood moments before.
Guttural Voice laughed, but it sounded more like a dying donkey. “Oh, it isn’t. But you know what it is. Lesson one, the Bratva does not hand out invitations, Mr…, ah, what did you want us to call you? Right. Vasiliev.”
Cici reshouldered her pack, still grasping her keys in her hand.
Russian surname. Cici had heard it often enough in Manhattan and in Boston.
She scooched forward, trying to control her breathing as she worked her way around one of the rounded kivas in the floor.
Why the pre-Puebloans chose to build so many sinkholes proved incomprehensible. Yes, yes, the kivas connected the underworld with the earthly realm. This was their church. All great points, but large kivas made escaping complex situations more difficult.
Maybe that was the point.
Anna Carmen, I’m sorry I was angry with you. I need some help. Now would be a good time to…do something. Like commune with any shaman or another spirit hanging out here, unhappy to have invaders clambering all over their spiritual sites.
In that brief flash of panicked prayer, Cici never considered herself an unwelcome invader. She swallowed hard. Wait. The Chacoans disappeared hundreds of years before the great Spanish drive north into this part of the country.
Okay…so maybe, to the Chacoans, Cici wasn’t a conquistadora.
Her family invaded their homelands. She totally was an invader.
Never mind, Aci. I just need help to get out of here.
“Sergei, come here!”
Guttural Voice—his name was Sergei, apparently—grumbled.
“Found a baggie. It’s half full of trail mix.”
“So?” Sergei called back.
“Looks new. Chocolate bits aren’t that melted. Yum. This is good stuff.”
Sergei grumbled about how something could look new when it was litter. He must have moved toward Don. Cici worked her way around the next circle. A few more steps and she’d be back to the path. Her chest tightened. This mad dash would be the scariest part. She would not be able to look back to see if the men were shooting while simultaneously dodging cacti and rocks.
She sucked in a deep belly-full of air, like she used to at her lacrosse games. Another as she settled into the old, comfortable running position.
Behind her, the sound of scuffling rose.
Cici jerked. No, not a firecracker going off. She was too familiar with that sound.
Pah-ting. Pah-ting. Pah-ting. Pah-ting.
Her heart raced as she shoved off the ground and broke into a sprint.
Behind her, more gunshots slammed into the earth.