Kramer put his phone away. “Plan A didn’t go well, so you and I are stuck with Plan B—intercepting Harper here in Belize.”
He and Brandt strolled the city’s waterfront area of Tourism Village, brushing shoulders with locals and visitors from overseas, taking part in the universal dodgem game with the ubiquitous street hawker.
Brandt was looking at a colorful scarf but handed it back to the stall owner. “Harper got away? Did she have people in London helping her?”
“Nothing as complicated as that. She simply took out the intercept team.”
“All by herself?” Brandt remarked as she sidestepped round a couple at the next street stall. “I’m looking forward to meeting this Harper sheila.”
Kramer warded off a hawker. “Be careful what you wish for. She has her reasons for heading this way, and it’s beginning to appear as if she’s not going to let anything or anyone get in her way.”
“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask about that. I read everything we have on Harper–that includes everything that the FBI, INTERPOL, and everyone else have on file as well. I don’t recall her having any connection with Belize. If I’d heard she was making for this part of the world my money would be on Cuba not here. Her late beau, Valdiron, seemed to favor Cuba as his resource pool for hit men, after all.”
Kramer faltered then continued walking, albeit a trifle faster. It took a moment for Brandt’s faux pas to hit her.
“Geez, Kramer, I’m sorry,” she blurted. “I didn’t mean for it to come out sounding so bloody—I mean, so cold hearted.” She thumped her head hard. “Shit, I did it again. Me and my bloody big mouth.”
“It’s okay, Brandt.” Kramer failed miserably to hide the pain. Images of Valdiron and his men murdering his parents were never too far from the surface.
“Geez, Kramer…” Brandt pleaded.
“No . . . it’s fine, Brandt. I’m okay.” He turned to her. “All that is history. Let’s just let it go—forget it.” He was lying through his teeth, and he knew Brandt knew it, too. They turned round and headed back for their hotel in silence.
Next morning had them up bright and early. They had separate rooms, and that made it easier for Kramer. He didn’t have to explain to his partner why he didn’t get a wink of sleep.
Losing his parents and Sarah, the love of his life, to the ruthlessness of Valdiron and, ipso facto, his partner in crime—Harper, was burned indelibly into Kramer’s soul. It was a part of his life that would forever haunt him—night and day. As hard as he had strived to thrust the memories deep into the darkest recesses of his mind, he knew that a multitude of trigger words would be enough to resurrect the searing pain and torture. That’s what happened last night with Brandt, and with Darci and Maria over the past years.
It all happened out of innocence on the part of Kramer’s friends and others, and he knew full well there would come the day when the pain wouldn’t stop but the intensity would—or so he hoped and prayed. Until then he had no option but to cope with it as best he could; if that meant others might think him uncaring and insensitive to his loss then so be it.
Kramer checked his watch and stepped into the hallway just as Brandt closed the door to her room.
“All forgiven about last night, boss?” she asked warily.
“What’s to forgive?. C’mon, let’s get to the airport and set ourselves up before the flight lands.”
The run to Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport took all of eighteen minutes because of the traffic encountered. They had ample time to walk the terminal and assess the best locations from which to observe Harper’s arrival and the most likely point for the intercept.
The arrival board showed the London flight was on time. Brandt checked her watch.
“We have forty-five minutes,” she said.
“Time enough for a coffee,” Kramer added.
They ambled over to the terminal’s cafe, placed their orders and settled down to watch the parade. From what Kramer had read it should be late in the tourist season, but judging by the crowd this morning the tourist business must be booming. Aircraft were arriving from various Latin cities and disgorging their loads of passengers as fast as they could. Yet even as passengers and those waiting to welcome them departed the airport he could see no lessening of the numbers filling the terminal.
He needed to revise his plan for grabbing Harper because he hadn’t counted on the Belize airport being so busy. The news from London compounded the problem because it was evident that Harper was prepared to fight her way out of any situation. Kramer suddenly realized, with all that in mind, he wasn’t prepared to risk the safety of so many innocent bystanders.
One of the major advantages of working for Global Security Corp was having the necessary clearance for carrying concealed weapons no matter their field of operation. However, along with that came the heavy responsibility of safeguarding the local populace at all times—not always the easiest of tasks.
He and Brandt hunkered down at their table and worked on an alternative idea. The London flight was on its final approach when they eventually settled on the details and moved off to their respective stations.
AA Flight 2454 touched down right on time. Despite the ten hour non-stop flight from the U.K. the majority of arriving passengers spilling into the terminal looked remarkably fresh and raring to get on with the serious business of vacationing.
Kramer made a concerted effort to remain invisible because of his past association with Harper—they knew each other on sight. Brandt, on the other hand, being a new face in the game was able to mingle with the bustling crowd of welcomers. She jumped about waving her hands and joined in the choruses of ‘over here’ and ‘great to see you again.’
It didn’t take long for the stream of Flight 2454 arrivals to drop to a trickle. Even had she been disguised, Kramer was certain he could have picked her out of the crowd. A twinge of suspicion tickled up his spine. He left his concealment and began edging forward.
“I didn’t spot her. She must have slipped past me somehow.” Brandt’s voice sounded in his earpiece.
“I don’t think so. I didn’t see her either,” he replied. “I’m working my way over to you.”
“Hey, there she is. I can see her coming out—”
“Okay, I see her, too. Remember our new plan, don’t move until—”
“Hey, what’s she up to?”
Harper paused at the airline desk and showed something like a business card to one of the airline employees. They talked for a moment then Harper was escorted to a door. The airline gal punched the security keypad and permitted Harper to pass through then promptly closed the door.
“Shit.” Kramer leapt into action. Harper had just been given access to the ramp area.
He tapped Brandt’s shoulder as he sprinted past her and together they approached the airline desk. Out came Kramer’s gold badge.
“Security. You gave that passenger access to the ramp—why?”
The woman gawked at him then Brandt. She stumbled for words as they leaned into her. “She . . . she had identification . . . a security pass that—”
“Quick. Open that door now.” Kramer took the woman by the elbow and hurried her to the staff-only exit. “Hurry.”
The woman frantically punched in the code and stepped back. Kramer flung the door open and stepped onto the metal staircase leading down to the ground. He and Brandt flew down the stairs and immediately scanned the ramp area. A flurry of activity surrounded the recently arrived flight from London and other gangs of workers buzzed around a line of standing aircraft.
Brandt pointed at a black town car parked in an empty arrival gate. They recognized the woman climbing in while a man held the door open for her.
“Harper,” Kramer uttered.
He broke into a run as the man closed the door behind Harper and the town car began moving. Brandt kept pace with her partner.
Whether oblivious to the chase or indifferent, airport workers continued their hectic activity as Kramer and Brandt dashed through their midst. The town car was hampered by the ramp’s speed restrictions and they quickly gained on it.
Kramer could see the doorman watching the car leave. The guy must have heard them coming because he spun around and immediately reached behind his back.
Brandt veered left. Kramer veered right. The man held a gun. He hesitated a split second, trying to decide on his target. A gun fired; the sound swallowed up by the cacophony of jet engines. A spout of concrete chips and dust appeared at the gunman’s feet. He leapt backward and fired back at Brandt.
Kramer changed course and charged straight at the gunman. The tackle struck the guy hard, driving all the air out of him in a loud painful grunt. His gun clattered across the ground as he crumpled under Kramer’s attack. His head smacked the concrete. Kramer rolled off the guy and noticed the halo of blood about his head. The gunman was down for the count.
Suddenly Brandt hurdled both men and continued after the town car. She aimed a shot at a back tire and smiled at the puff of escaping air.
Kramer snatched up the gunman’s weapon and gave chase after Brandt. He caught up with her as she took a second shot at the town car. It hit the same rear tire and the vehicle fishtailed slightly before the driver regained control. The chase headed towards an access gate that led onto the public road running into the city.
This plan is going to shit. Kramer winced as Brandt fired close by, this time shattering the car’s rear window.
An official airport vehicle pulled up and the driver climbed out. Before he could utter a word, Kramer seized his arm and whirled him out of the way. The man watched helplessly as they commandeered his vehicle and screamed off in a cloud of smoking tires. The town car crashed through the airport gate with the chase car close on its tail.
Traffic scattered off to the sides as both cars swerved onto International Airport Road and tore off towards downtown Belize. Brandt clambered into the back seat as Kramer managed to bring their vehicle alongside the town car. Brandt rolled down her window and prepared to shoot. She was flung violently across the seat when the other driver rammed into them trying to force them off the road.
The cars swerved apart then collided again in a shower of sparks and rending metal. Seemingly locked together, both vehicles swayed back and forth across the road like a couple of drunken sailors.
Brandt scrambled back to her window and found herself staring across at Harper. It felt surreal—being eye to eye with the woman at last. Then the moment passed. Harper leveled a pistol at Brandt. The Aussie managed to duck as a bullet tore through the window’s upper trim.
“You okay back there?” yelled Kramer.
“Yeah, but your woman has sharp claws.”
“I warned you . . . and she’s not my woman.”
Kramer tugged the wheel sharply to the right then viciously to the left. Their car glanced off the rear fender as the town car surged ahead. Brandt scrambled over into the front seat. Kramer maneuvered the chase car giving his partner a better line-of-fire. She leaned out the passenger window and fired a couple shots into the rear window of the town car hoping to at least hit the driver.
Instead, Harper shot back at them. Kramer felt a shudder coarse through their car and wondered what part of the engine took the hits. He couldn’t be sure if he imagined the sudden sluggishness or not but whatever the case, the gap between their car and Harper’s began widening.
The next few miles took them through sparsely inhabited countryside. On the right were occasional glimpses of the Belize River while on the left, across flat unimpressive coastal land, they sometimes saw patches of ocean. Then they entered the outskirts of Belize City and encountered growing traffic. Any exchange of gunfire was immediately curtailed.
“I’m losing sight of them,” Brandt complained. She eased through her window until she was almost sitting on the sill. A moment later she reported losing their target altogether. She ducked back inside. “I can’t tell if they’re still somewhere ahead of us or if they pulled off into one of these friggin’ side streets.”
Kramer sensed his partner’s frustration. “We’re not diving into that warren,” he said. “My guess is that she’s heading into the city, so we’ll stay on the main road and do the same. With any luck we’ll spot that town car once we’re there—it’s fairly distinctive, what with your bullet holes and a flat tire.”
“Let’s hope so,” Brandt grumbled. “Our day hasn’t got off to a good start.”
Kramer looked across at her. “And it isn’t over yet, partner. Belize isn’t that big a place.”
“Think Maria’s IT wizards could help out?”
“Hard to say. It’s worth a try, at least. It’s your idea, you call it in.”
“The technical sophistication of that region is fairly primitive compared to most places. I can’t guarantee we’ll be able to hack into any viable networks, but we’ll certainly give it our best shot.” Maria’s response to Brandt’s call carried at least enough positiveness to bolster the team on the ground.
The time on his Apple Watch confirmed Kramer’s fears—13:21, and no sign of the black town car or Harper. They had crisscrossed the city for hours using Google Maps to ensure they didn’t miss any lanes or alleys. Either Harper was holed up somewhere waiting for their search to move on before resurfacing, or she’d given them the slip—again.
The latter would prove a massive pill for Kramer and Brandt to swallow after literally coming face-to-face with the woman. After consulting with his partner, Kramer felt reassured knowing they were of the same mind, that Harper was waiting for them to move their search out of town.
“I grew up on my parents’ farm back of Sydney, on the western side of the Blue Mountains. Dad taught me that barring a few exceptions most nasties tend to crawl out at night. I put my money on the bitch doing the same.”
Kramer couldn’t help smiling at the Aussie’s colorful language. It was an integral part of her character and one he was growing particularly fond of.
“I couldn’t have expressed it any better,” he said.
Brandt peered at him then glanced away.
With the onset of afternoon, the streets were filling with more and more people seeking the city’s fabled nightlife. It made for near-impassable roads for vehicles so they had decided to leave their car at the hotel in favor of recon-a-la-feet.
The latest feedback from Maria indicated her team was making headway, albeit slowly. They had been successful in hacking into a number of security networks and had been pleasantly surprised by the quality and sophistication of equipment and software used in and around the city.
“The changes we’ve encountered so far are encouraging us to rethink our classification of that part of the region,” Maria said. “They certainly improve our chances of coming across Harper.”
Maria’s report came in over two hours ago with no subsequent follow-up thus far. Kramer and Brandt had no choice but to beat the streets themselves while waiting for a callback to say Harper had been spotted.
They followed the lead of the roaming tourists and savored many of the delicacies offered by the street vendors but were careful to avoid any alcoholic beverages. As the shadows lengthened the city’s lights and sounds increased exponentially. The day was transforming into a tropical evening of soft sea breezes, energizing music, tantalizing aromas, and growing numbers of people looking for and selling good times.
Brandt stopped short with a tamale part way to her mouth and used the food to point. “Kramer—look.”
The team leader was beginning to feel jealous of his partner’s apparent superior vision or her plain damn luck at looking in the right direction at the right time.
He saw three figures standing together at the front door of an old colonial-style house partway down the street. A mane of fiery red glowed in the light from an overhead fixture. Kramer inhaled sharply through clenched teeth.
The group entered the house then a few minutes later reappeared and hung around the front stoop.
His pulse suddenly quickened and his chest tightened. He couldn’t believe their luck. Harper turned her head and Kramer tugged Brandt with him behind the cart of a street vendor. As they watched, Harper and her two male companions looked about as if they were expecting someone to arrive any minute. One of the men looked at his watch then held it up to the other two and jabbed it with his finger. Someone must be running late.
Harper scanned the street again then seemed to reach a decision because she spoke to the men and both shrugged their shoulders and nodded. Then the threesome stepped to the sidewalk and began working their way through the crowd—toward Kramer and Brandt.
As they approached, Kramer took a knee and pretended to tie a loose shoelace while using the cart for cover. Brandt leaned on the cart casually and quickly stuffed her tamale into her mouth when Harper happened to glance her way before hurrying on with the two men in tow.
Kramer pivoted on one foot and peered around the corner of the cart and watched the trio pass by. When he considered it safe he stood up. Brandt was at his side.
“Looks like they’re headed for the waterfront,” she mumbled around a mouthful of tamale.
Kramer nodded. “Did you happen to notice something else?”
Brandt swallowed. “Like what?”
“Harper is carrying a briefcase.”
“It sure looked to be the same one,” he answered, “and she didn’t have it with her when she and her friends went into that house.”
“The place was a drop point?”
“That’s my guess. Remember, we were told that Harper passed through London without any sign of the briefcase? I’m thinking that at some point she must have passed it off to a courier back in South Africa who brought it here for her to collect.”
“The sneaky bitch. But it sounds fair enough to me.” Brandt nodded.
Kramer pulled his phone out and tapped away on it for a moment then put it away. “I just texted Darci and Maria that we’ve spotted Harper and are tailing her.”
“Let’s go then.”
Kramer and Brandt merged into the swirl of nightlife. Ahead, Harper’s red mane served as a distinctive beacon for them. So long as the woman stuck to the main thoroughfare they shouldn’t have a problem keeping her in sight.
The hunted and the hunters threaded their way through the festive throngs for nearly twenty minutes until they emerged onto the Marine Parade Boulevard that ran north to south along the waterfront. Harper and friends turned right and headed south. Kramer and Brandt followed, keeping to the shadows as best they could.
The slender tower of Baron Bliss Lighthouse stood out against the midnight blue sky a few hundred yards ahead. Kramer recalled from the tourist map in their hotel that the boulevard curved round the headland that featured the lighthouse, a public park, and playgrounds then made for the Tourism Village.
People meandered along, some pausing to admire the red and green navigation lights of water taxis puttering on the Bay of Honduras like so many fireflies, while others studied the old colonial buildings fronting the boulevard. Harper’s group set a moderate pace.
“She sure seems to be on a mission,” Brandt observed. “Are we going to keep tailing her until she meets up with someone or intercept her and the diamonds before that happens?”
“Let’s give her a little longer,” Kramer said. “It certainly could pay us to know more of her contacts—”
A figure dressed in black cycling gear suddenly appeared from a shadowed corner of the small park pedaling furiously. whipping through knots of people.
The cyclist left a trail of angry startled yells as he tore across the boulevard. A man broke from a small group and stepped into the bike’s path only to be rammed savagely aside. Bystanders rushed to the man’s aid as the black figure aimed straight at Harper and her company.
One of Harper’s men reached inside his jacket but crumpled to his knees as a dark spot bloomed in the middle of his forehead. Her second companion pulled out his pistol and assumed a shooter’s wide stance. He fired. The cyclist flipped sideways as the bullet struck a young woman.
Pandemonium broke out as people scattered screaming and dashing in all directions. The gunman tracked the rider and fired again. Another bystander fell to the ground. Harper clutched the briefcase to her chest and moved to put her protector between herself and the rider.
Kramer and Brandt were stunned by the ferocity and speed of the sudden attack. They watched the cyclist hunker down low over the handlebars as he hurtled toward his two targets. The bodyguard twisted at the hips attempting to shoot the cyclist as he zipped past. Streetlights flashed off something metallic and the bodyguard dropped his pistol and clutched at his throat.
Harper swung the briefcase catching the cyclist on the shoulder. Rider and bike crashed to the road and skidded for several feet. She moved on the downed assailant leaving her bodyguard to bleed to death.
The cyclist struggled to untangle himself from his bike as Harper stalked closer. She placed the briefcase on the ground, reached down with one hand and pulled the rider’s black hood loose. She flung it aside and grabbed a handful of dark curly hair and wrenched the rider to his feet. He slashed at her with a slim knife but she knocked it away.
Then as Kramer and Brandt looked on, Harper held the rider at arms length for a moment talking to him. When he merely shook his head she punched him in the face with her free hand. The rider’s head snapped back with an audible crack. Harper let go of him. He sagged to his knees and flopped onto his side, his wide-open eyes staring blindly along the roadway.
The attack took less than a minute.
Harper bent down to collect the briefcase. Brandt gasped. A second rider suddenly appeared. A savage kick in the back sent Harper stumbling forward off balance. She regained her feet and whirled round to face her new attacker. But the rider was pedaling away like mad with the briefcase clamped under one arm.
She gave chase but covered only a few yards when she abruptly stopped. A look of astonishment filled her face. She recognized Kramer standing scowling at her; a dozen yards between them.
The second rider, too intent on escaping, failed to notice the couple barring the way ahead. Harper watched Kramer’s female partner stiff-arm the cyclist. He tumbled backward off the bike and hit the road hard then lay motionless. Harper drew a sharp breath as the woman scooped the briefcase off the ground as the rider-less cycle wobbled off into the night. She watched as the woman knelt beside the prone figure and peeled away the black hood and her eyes widen in surprise. Harper frowned when she saw that the rider was a young Hispanic woman. Movement caught her attention and Harper saw Kramer charging straight for her.
Sirens sounded in the distance as police forged their way through the crowded streets to the scene of the shootings. People began to emerge from hiding around the park area as they realized the danger may have passed and a few ran to the victims still lying in the street. They leapt aside as a tall redhead dashed through their midst.
Harper heard Kramer’s feet drumming on the roadway behind her. Her senses narrowed their focus on the target ahead to the point of almost obscuring everyone and everything around her. Kramer was the hunter; Harper was the game.
She ran like a gazelle trying to outrun a lion; she twisted and turned and leapt over obstacles. But despite her efforts she sensed him gaining on her.
The chase cut across the small park then back onto the boulevard and crisscrossed through the creeping traffic and dawdling pedestrians. Harper slammed into a car door that opened in her path and careened off into a couple standing gaping at her. She glanced back and saw Kramer take the car in his stride, leaping onto the hood and sliding across it back onto the road. Harper held her hip in pain from the collision.
The gap between them was now only ten feet.
She left the road and took to the boardwalk. The crowds along here were thicker as they milled around colorful stalls and checked out eateries and bars.
Harper plowed into a group sending three men spinning off into the harbor and their womenfolk staggering back into a food stand. She heard shrieks of protest as Kramer tore through the gap and closed on her.
Hoots and jeers rose above the hubbub of waterfront nightlife as the crowd gave voice to the chase but to Harper it sounded like muted surf pounding the shore.
Suddenly she sensed Kramer close behind, then his fingers locked onto her clothing. She twisted viciously and tore loose from his grasp leaving him holding a handful of flimsy fabric that he tossed aside angrily.
Harper collided with a party coming down a flight of stairs from a waterfront bar. Thinking her innocent, a man stooped and pulled her from the jumble of bodies. She shoved him aside and veered off the boardwalk onto the dock fronting another popular bar. Customers rose from their seats and gaped as she pounded past. She noticed their heads whiplash as Kramer sprinted past a second later.
The throaty roar of a motor reverberated through the dock area as a launch left a neighboring dock and headed their way. As she ran along the wharf, Harper became conscious of the boat as it drew closer, then turn parallel to her. She hunched half expecting a shot to ring out. Instead, the launch accelerated until it pulled alongside. Damn, I lucked out.
Harper shot a glance over her shoulder as Kramer ducked his head and powered forward—but too late. She leaped off the dock into the waiting arms of one of two men onboard. Water churned and foamed as the helmsman pushed the throttle forward.
Harper caught her breath as Kramer jumped.
She gasped as he landed on the stern with a resounding thump. He teetered for a second fighting for his sea legs. One of the men went for him swinging wildly with a gaff but Kramer ducked as the weapon swished over his head. Harper swore as the momentum of his swing brought the man around on his heels and Kramer drove a fist into the exposed kidney area. The man grunted and buckled at the knees. Kramer glanced up in time to see Harper raise her pistol.
The bullet punched him in the shoulder and drove Kramer back onto his heels. The second shot slammed into his chest and shoved him further backward.
She grinned viciously as the boat fell away from under Kramer’s feet and he toppled overboard. She looked on as he fought against the pull of the ocean; could tell his strength was seeping away. She smiled as Kramer slipped beneath the waves.
Time was inconsequential. So were his surroundings—if indeed there were any. He couldn’t tell because he couldn’t feel. He was weightless; just floating there—in nothing. He’d read articles regarding isolation tanks or sensory deprivation tanks but had never experienced one himself. Is this what it feels like? Is that where I am? Why?
Blackness enveloped him.
Pain—dull, but it was there. And he ached. He sensed that and smiled. He remembered his U.S. Marine training—if you felt pain it meant you were alive. Survival was something else entirely. The important thing—right here, right now—was he was alive. Breathing hurt like hell, but that was a good thing.
Light—soft, pastel, shifting. He squinted hard but couldn’t focus properly. He closed his eyes and sensed the light touching his eyelids gently.
Sound—distant humming and buzzing. There was a rhythmic beeping—closer. He shifted his head to triangulate the sounds, determine their location.
“Nurse, he’s coming around. Can you chase up a doc, please? Kramer? Hey, boss, can you hear me? Can you squeeze my finger?”
“Please miss, can you step aside for a moment?”
A bright light pierced his senses. He felt pressure– touching, squeezing.
“Everything looks good. I don’t how, but he’s going to be okay.”
“Thanks, doc. Of course he’ll be okay. I didn’t doubt it for a moment. He’s a die hard Marine, after all—and my mate.”
“Well, he still needs to rest, so don’t bother him too much. You both need more sleep. I’ll have the nurse check in on him later.”
It took a week of bed rest and a lot of TLC, and through it all Brandt remained at Kramer’s bedside updating him on everything.
She hadn’t been able to catch up with him as he chased after Harper because the briefcase full of diamonds slowed her down. But the trail of felled tourists and locals made it easy for Brandt to trace their path.
Despite the crowd’s noise, and the waterfront festivities, she’d heard a couple of gunshots. Moments later she arrived on the dock in time to see a motor launch disappearing into the night and assumed it had Harper onboard. Then someone had shouted out there was a person in the water and she’d recognized Kramer. Without thinking, she dropped the briefcase and dived in after him, pulling him ashore with the help of several onlookers.
“And, well, here you are,” she said.
“How’s my trooper, Shadow?” The dog was always Kramer’s main concern. Brandt smiled and gave thumbs up.
“Harper?” Kramer’s throat and chest hurt when he spoke, and his question sounded raspy and scratchy.
Brandt looked crestfallen and shook her head. “We’re not sure where she got to. When I reported you being shot to Darci and Maria, Darci wanted to fly out here immediately. I told him he would be of more use helping Maria track down Harper, and leave your care to me.”
“You said that to Darci? How’d he take it?”
Brandt shrugged. “He didn’t like it much, but he knew I was right.”
Kramer smiled and studied her for a moment. “I’m beginning to think you and Darci have a history. He usually doesn’t take any lip from anyone.”
“I spoke to him nicely, though,” Brandt explained.
Kramer chuckled then grimaced in pain. He held up a hand as Brandt half rose from her chair. “It’s okay. I’m fine. Thanks to you and the hospital staff I’m feeling better every day.” His room had a view of the bay and he stared out at the glistening water for a long moment.
“I let her get away, Charlie.” He spoke in a whisper.
Brandt heard the anger and pain in his voice and wished she could relieve some of that weight from his shoulders. But Kramer had been hunting Harper far longer than her, and had more cause for blaming himself for Harper’s escape—to literally have her slip through his fingers. He was the type of person to take all the responsibility for mission errors upon himself. There was nothing much Brandt could do about that—yet.
“Darci and Maria are tops at what they do. They’ll track her down again. I know they will—so do you.”
“Well, we—you and me, that is—we can’t just sit around here lapping up the atmosphere while they and others work their butts off,” Kramer complained. “We have to do something.” He turned back to Brandt. “You’re positive we have no leads on Harper?”
She thought for a moment. “We could help look for that launch,” she suggested.
“That’s a start,” he said. He tilted his head. “I’ve been laid up here for a week. You mean to tell me no one has located it, let alone bothered to search for it?”
“I couldn’t give much of a description of it to the local cops, but they’re working on whatever eyewitnesses were able to give ‘em.”
“Well, this eyewitness saw it up close and personal,” Kramer said tapping his chest. “I say you and I look for it ourselves.”
“I’m with you, boss. But maybe in another day or so, ‘cause the doctor says—”
“He can say what he likes. I know how I feel and I’m checking out.” He threw back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the hospital bed. “Well, don’t just stand there. Get out and let a man get dressed, unless—”
“Oh no, I’m going. I’ll wait outside.”
Kramer smiled as Brandt hurried from the room, letting the door close behind her. He eased himself off the bed and walked gingerly to the small closet.
The leader looked around at his men and grinned. Now that they stood on American soil they all looked more alive, more energized—eager to get on with their missions.
They had been impressed by the elaborate tunnel system their cartel host had managed to construct right under the noses of the American border patrols. Admittedly, they had had their expected clashes over the years, but despite the occasional losses and setbacks, the cartel persisted in their drive to infiltrate America with their guns and drugs.
The group leader had wished them every success as he and his men exited the cleverly concealed tunnel and found their transport dutifully waiting to drive them to their various destinations.
The men gathered in a circle as their leader handed out the identification documents and contact details pertinent to each two-man cell. They synchronized their watches and pocketed the burner phones issued to each man, acknowledging the leader’s strict instructions that the phones were for mission use only, and under no circumstances for personal use.
“I know there are those among us curious to try some of the American food we have heard about, but those phones are not to be used for ordering pizzas or the like. If word reaches me that any have done this, and that person survives his mission, I personally will find him and execute him myself. Is that clear?”
The group nodded as one.
The leader continued. “When the confrontation begins, strike like champions who do not want to go back to this world. Shout, ‘Allahu Akbar.’ because this strikes fear in the hearts of the non-believers.” He punched his fist at the sky and shouted, “Allahu Akbar.”
The group followed suit. “Allahu Akbar.”
Their war cry drifted out over the desert as each two-man team climbed into its waiting vehicle. Engines roared to life then the ten vehicle convoy headed away from the border and towards a nearby town where they separated.
Ten vehicles. Ten teams. Ten separate destinations. One common mission—bring the Great Satan to its knees.
* * * * * *
Darci slammed his hand down on his desk. “Damn!”
“You’re still not going on about that business with Harper, are you?” Maria stood in the doorway watching her husband storm around his office. “We really must get you on something for that temper of yours. You’re losing it far too often these days. And look what you’re doing to poor Spirit.”
He stopped and scowled at her. They’d gone around and around over the subject of him taking the antidepressant Paxil. He absolutely refused to follow the trend running rampant in America regarding drugs. He crouched in front of Kramer’s jet black Pit Bull and apologized for frightening him.
“Here, take this. At least look on the bright side. Kramer is up and about and on the mend.” She walked across the room and handed him one of the crystal tumblers she carried. “Let’s go over the details again. Maybe we missed something before. I doubt it myself, but it’s worth our time and effort.”
A sip of his Aberlour eighteen-year-old single malt whisky seemed to diffuse Darci immediately. He studied the deep golden liquor for a moment, sighed then placed the glass on his desk and took up his iPad. He keyed in a command and the digital wall of his office came to life. He tapped a few more keys and the huge screen filled with a real-time Google Earth Pro map of the Caribbean.
“From what little we’ve been told about the launch Harper disappeared on . . .” He drew a circle with Belize City at its center and dragged the cursor until it showed a radius of one hundred fifty nautical miles. “This shows its maximum range on a good day with perfect conditions.”
Maria approached the screen and studied it. She cradled an elbow with one hand while she tapped her chin thoughtfully with a finger of her other hand.
“Brandt reported the boat was heading east-south-east before it disappeared. If we assume it kept that course, or close to it, that would take it toward here.” She tapped the point on the map marked Bay Islands.
“That’s a bloody big ‘if’,” quipped Darci.
“It’s only one idea, darling,” replied Maria. “Okay, let’s say it changed course at some point soon after leaving Belize City and, say, headed south. That would bring La Ceiba, Puerto Barrios, and Dangriga within range. If it went north . . . that brings Chetumal into play.”
“Don’t forget all the cays and islands apart from Bay Islands,” Darci said. He sat on the edge of his desk and peered at the map over the top of his tumbler.
“I’m not so concerned with those,” Maria replied.
“Oh, and why not?”
“Most don’t have any aircraft facilities and the few that do have only small airstrips. On the other hand, the places I’ve mentioned have major airports. I’m working on the basis that Harper flew into Belize from London to collect the diamonds that were couriered there in advance. After the pick up I think she planned to fly out again to—I don’t know where.
“Regardless of the cyclists’ attempt to snatch the diamonds and then losing them to Brandt, the fact that the launch appeared at the dock when it did seems to me that Harper intended to meet up with it and was most likely headed that way when she and her two bodyguards ran into the bikers.”
Darci shook his head. “I see a flaw in your thinking, hon.” She turned to face him. “Don’t get me wrong. Everything you’ve said is great—up to a point.” He hopped off the desk and walked to the map. “If you’re right and Harper did plan to fly out to somewhere after collecting the diamonds, why not leave straight from the Belize airport? Why bother with the launch business to begin with?”
Maria spun round to the map. Her eyes widened. “You’re right. I’ve got it all wrong—have so all along. Harper didn’t have the launch ready to take her off to another airport . . . she planned to—”
“—switch to another boat,” Darci said. Suddenly his interest was piqued. “You know, hon, I think she met up with a bigger boat . . . possibly a ship of some sort.”
Maria snapped her fingers. “A cruise ship.”
Darci looked at her then at the map. He pursed his lips in thought but Maria could see the excited twinkle in his eyes she grown to love.
“We’ve suspected right from the start that at some point in time Harper would make a move to reestablish operations here in America, after all, she owes it to Valdiron’s memory,” he mused. “And when we got wind of her getting her hands on those diamonds we thought they were meant to bankroll some scheme of hers—something big.” He reached out and tapped the screen.
“I bet Harper is going to enter America on a cruise ship returning from a run through the Caribbean, a cruise that brought it close to Belize.”
“That all makes perfect sense. Kramer and Brandt ran into her over a week ago.” Maria looked aghast.
Darci nodded. “Yes. If I’m right, that means Harper is already here in America.”