Two miles. They’d come down two miles from their planned landing zone, which put them two-and-a-half from the cave. On cleared terrain, he could run the distance in less than a half hour with full backpack. In the jungle, two and a half miles stretched to infinity.
Grimly, Carlos dug a pair of night-vision goggles from a pocket in his lightweight fatigue vest and led the way into dank, murky rain forest.
“Come on! Keep climbing!”
The gun barrel jabbed ruthlessly into Margarita’s spine, prodding her up the steep path. She winced at the bruising pain, but it soon blended with all the others into an indistinguishable ache. Narrowing her eyes against the bright dawn haze, she inched her way up the path toward the distant roar of a waterfall.
With every stumbling step, needles of fire shot up her bound arms. Her shoulder sockets burned. Cramps pulled like iron tongs at calf muscles straining from the hard climb. At that moment, she would have given almost everything she owned for a few sips of water.
They’d driven all night, each twisting turn of the road taking them higher into the mountains. For the first hour or two of that long ride, Margarita had listened with every sense straining for sounds of pursuit. Hope of rescue faded with each grind of the Jeep’s gears. She should have known the elusive criminal SPEAR had been hunting for months would have planned his escape well.
Well, she wasn’t going to make the escape any easier for the walking piece of slime behind her. Deliberately, she stumbled and went down on one knee. Sharp rock cut into the jeans she’d hurriedly thrown on before rushing to the prison. Her gasp of pain was only half feigned.
“Get up!” her captor snarled, panting even harder than Margarita from the arduous trek. He’d emptied his canteen early in the climb. Thirst and exertion put a rasp in his throat. “You’re not fooling anyone with this weak, helpless female act. I know the kind of training you’ve had.”
With an awkward twist of her upper body, Margarita propped a shoulder against the cliff face and pushed herself up. Her breath cut like razor blades into lungs starved for oxygen.
“How do you know what kind of training I’ve had? Who are you?”
A sneer twisted his lips. “You tell me.”
“All right.” Her chest heaving, she propped her aching shoulders against the vine-covered rock wall behind her. “You’re Simon.”
“Very good.” The sneer deepened, tugging at his scarred face. He stepped up beside her and dug the pistol barrel into the soft flesh under her chin. “And we both know who you are, don’t we? The bitch who’s been interfering in my operations in Central and South America.”
With her back against sheer rock and a gun barrel grinding into the underside of her chin, Margarita weighed the odds of taking him down right then and there. If she twisted her head just a few inches to the right, hooked her shoulder into his chest and shoved the bastard over the side of the path before he got off a shot…
“It took me a while to figure out who Jonah had operating in Madrileño.”
Jonah! The casual way he dropped the name froze Margarita in place. Dios! This man knew more about SPEAR than many of its own agents.
“What makes you think I work for Jonah?”
Vicious satisfaction laced his voice. “I have my ways of getting information…just as SPEAR does. You caused me considerable inconvenience, Señorita de las Fuentes. You and that bastard deputy defense minister.”
Her surprised gasp drew a parody of a smile. “Yes, Carlos. Between the information you supplied SPEAR and Caballero’s internal crackdown on the drug trade, the two of you just about destroyed my base of operations in this corner of the world.”
Carlos! For the merest instant, she could hear his voice. Feel his mouth on hers. Just the thought of his strong, solid form brought the craven wish she’d never left his arms. Then reality returned in the form of a vicious killer.
“Good.” Despite a throat parched with thirst, she managed a sarcastic smile. “I’m glad we inconvenienced you.”
“I wouldn’t look so pleased with yourself.” The gun barrel ground into her jaw. “Your interference will end as of today.”
Ignoring both the threat and the agony of steel against bone, she swept her captor a disdainful glance. His disfigurement had been startling enough in the dim prison interior. In the bright light of dawn, the puckered, angry flesh could weaken anyone’s stomach. His glass eye remained fixed. His good eye followed hers as they roamed his scars.
“Hideous, aren’t they?”
She refused to give him so much as a hint of sympathy. “I’ve seen worse.”
With the cosmetic techniques available today, he could have had the scars removed. That he chose not to told her he took some kind of perverse pride in his disfigurement—or that he wanted a bitter daily reminder of whatever cataclysmic event had caused it. When she suggested as much in a cool voice, something so evil flared in his one good eye that Margarita’s palms flattened against rock behind her.
“I want Jonah to see them. Which he will…and soon. Now move it, Señorita. I’ve wasted enough time in this stinking green cesspool you call a country.”
The slur to Madrileño only added to his hostage’s growing determination to shove his gun barrel between his teeth and make him eat his words along with a good six inches of cold steel. Laughing at the deadly promise in her eyes, he stepped back and motioned her onward. With her chin bruised and fire burning in her heart, Margarita resumed her climb.
Her chance would come.
It had to come.
The path twisted and turned. The sun crawled higher, a blazing ball visible through gaps in the vines and trees clinging to the mountain. Twice, Margarita stumbled to her knees, only to be jerked upright by a cruel hand in her hair. Once, the little locket stuck to the sweaty skin beneath her blouse began to vibrate.
The feel of it humming against her breasts made her want to weep with frustration. The tiny device hidden inside only received signals, didn’t send them. There was no way for SPEAR to pinpoint her location.
Gradually, the roar of the waterfall grew louder. When they rounded a bend and Simon dragged back a straggling curtain of vines to reveal a gaping hole in the cliff face, Margarita knew time was running out. She’d have to free herself quickly, before his accomplices appeared on the scene and her value as a hostage ended.
With a grunt, he planted a fist in her back and shoved her inside the cave. She made a frantic sweep of the dank interior for snakes or other inhospitable inhabitants before she hit the rock floor. The thud jarred her teeth. Cursing fluently in both Spanish and English, she twisted up and around.
“My friends will be here shortly,” he said with callous indifference to her curses. “While we wait, I’ll fill the canteen at the waterfall.”
Swiping his forearm across his sweaty forehead, he dragged another length of rope from his back pocket and tied her ankles. He seemed to take particular delight in yanking the knots until they cut almost through her boot tops. Margarita refused to so much as move a muscle at his rough treatment, even when he slid his palm up her calf and squeezed, hard.
“Be a good girl and I’ll give you some water.”
A smile dragged at his misshapen mouth. His hand roamed higher, to her thigh. She felt its damp heat through her jeans.
“Then again, maybe I won’t. Maybe you’ll have to beg for it. I like my women hot and desperate.”
“I imagine that’s the only way a scum like you can get them.”
His casual backhand snapped