While his mind whirled with unanswered questions, fear coiled in his gut. Margarita didn’t know the jungle. She’d been raised in the city, spent her summers at her father’s sugar plantation and years at school in the States. She’d never hacked her way through strangler vines as thick as a man’s arm or dodged tarantulas the size of dinner plates. If by some stroke of luck she managed to escape this prisoner, she wouldn’t last a day in the steaming green hell that covered most of Madrileño.
An icy sweat had pooled at the base of his spine by the time Carlos strode into the Gold Room. At his entrance, the captain of the guard snapped to rigid attention, took one look at his murderous expression and blanched. Although democracy had taken firm root in Madrileño, most security matters—including the national police and administration of the prison system—came under the military, which was headed by the Minister of Defense. As deputy defense minister, Carlos stood in the captain’s direct chain of command. He could have the man’s head, or at least his pension, for this incident.
“You talk.” He fired the words through clenched jaws. “I’ll listen.”
“We took this prisoner with the others in the big drug bust yesterday, the one we coordinated with the Americans.”
“I’m aware of the operation,” Carlos snapped.
He should be. After receiving a tip about a major heroine shipment being moved through the mountains to an isolated airstrip, he’d worked forty-eight hours straight to set up a multipronged, multinational attack. His men had taken down two planes, half-a-dozen aircrew members, a number of small-time drug lords and so many locals engaged in transporting the uncut heroin the police were still trying to sort them all out.
“This particular gringo would not tell us his name,” the captain reported. “He’s an ugly bastard, very scarred, with one glass eye. We assumed he was one of the fliers. When they asked us to hold him in special custody—”
“Who asked you to hold him?”
The captain blinked at the whiplike question. “The Americans, sir. We received a call…I assumed you knew.”
Carlos would find out who made that call later. Right now, his only concern was Margarita.
Unfortunately, the captain could shed no light on why she’d asked to see this particular prisoner. All he knew was that she’d showed up at the prison and requested an interview.
“The gringo seemed to be expecting her. He called her by name and smiled when she offered herself as hostage instead of that sweating, sniveling guard, as though he’d anticipated just such a move.”
Carlos stared at the captain, his face shuttered while confusion piled on top of the fury gripping at his chest. What the hell was going on here? What had Margarita gotten involved in?
“The gringo left us locked in the interrogation room,” the captain confessed, shame evident in every line of his stiff body. “The walls of the castillo are so thick, it was a good ten minutes before anyone found us. My men report that Señorita de las Fuentes walked out beside this man as though they were going for an evening stroll. Only after I was found did we discover that a Jeep was taken.”
“So no one saw which direction they headed?”
Miserable, the captain shook his head. “No, commandante.”
With some effort, Carlos held back another vicious curse. When he was satisfied that the captain could provide no further information, he dismissed him with a curt order to draw up a comprehensive plan to prevent such escapes in the future.
“Find Señor de las Fuentes,” he snapped at Miguel. “Ask him to join me here.”
The lieutenant hurried away, leaving Carlos to think furiously. The certainty that there was more involved in yesterday’s operation than a routine drug bust grew with each passing second. The tip had come at such an opportune moment. The support from the States had been too ready. And this call to the prison…
His face grim, he moved to an ornately carved console and snatched up the phone. He’d spent a few years in the States himself, first as a student at the Army’s Command and General Staff College, then as a military attaché to the Madrileñan ambassador. He still had some friends in high circles. Some good friends.
By the time Margarita’s anxious father hurried into the reception room, Carlos was coldly, savagely furious. Even after four calls and several blunt reminders of Madrileño’s unflagging support for America’s antidrug campaign, he still didn’t know who’d made the call. But he was determined to get to the bottom of it.
“What’s going on?” her father demanded, puffing a bit from his quick walk.
A career bureaucrat, Eduard de las Fuentes had worked tirelessly to help his brother win the presidency and institute badly needed reforms. He was a good man, traditional in his family values but forward thinking when it came to his country’s needs.
Succinctly, Carlos recounted the astounding events of the past half hour. Eduard gaped at him, his mouth popping open and closed like one of the orange-spotted frogs that populated the jungle.
“Margarita? This scum took my Margarita?”
“Apparently, she offered herself as hostage in exchange for the guard.”
“But…but…why did she go to the prison in the first place?”
“I’ll get the answer to that question when I find your daughter,” Carlos promised grimly.
He’d get more than answers, he thought savagely as he strode down the Palace steps into the star-studded night. He’d bring her back safely and drag whatever information she had out of her. Then he’d either wring her neck for walking into this mess in the first place or tie her naked to his bed and keep her there until the blasted woman admitted she wanted him as much as he did her!
At the moment, the former option seemed infinitely more probable.
Within an hour he was back in uniform and had assembled his team.
Within two, he’d pulled together enough intelligence to indicate the escaped prisoner would in all likelihood head for a rendezvous point in the jungle, a cave hidden high in the mountains supposedly used as a way station by drug runners. There, he’d join forces with the heavily armed band that had reportedly been spotted crossing the border.
Worry for Margarita gnawing at his gut, Carlos sat beside his driver for the short ride to the military airbase just outside San Rico. Miguel and a small, handpicked squad of ten men followed in a half-ton truck. Although his aide had tried to hide his feelings behind a carefully blank mask, he hadn’t yet recovered from the shock of finding Anna clinging like a limpet to his superior. Carlos would have to explain that scene to him—later! When his mind was clear and fear for Margarita didn’t crawl through his belly.
The helicopter crew had their bird preflighted and ready to go when Carlos and his team arrived at the airport. The squad filed to the chopper, almost invisible in their dark jungle fatigues and blackened faces. Silently, they climbed aboard and strapped in. While the rotor blades whirred and the engine whined up to full power, Carlos pulled a plastic-coated map from his pocket and ran through his hastily conceived tactical plan.
“We’ll land here, a half mile to the west of the cave to avoid alerting anyone in the vicinity.”
Stabbing a finger at the map, he pointed to an area devoid of towns, of plantations, of any signs of human habitation. The closest village lay a good ten miles to the west.
“With luck, we’ll reach the cave ahead of the fugitive and his hostage and be waiting when they arrive. If by chance they get there before us, we’ll use the element of surprise to come at them out of the darkness.”
Either approach involved risk. To his men. To himself. To Margarita. Still, the plan was the best he could devise.
It might even have worked…if the helicopter hadn’t developed engine trouble while they were still